MARTIN O’Neill believes midfield colt Jack Colback can battle his way into England contention over the next few years.
The Black Cats Academy graduate has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Sunderland revival under O’Neill, his confidence soaring to the point where the manager now sees him as one of his key men.
Colback was an unsung hero of the weekend defeat of QPR after delivering two starring displays in games against Liverpool and Everton. He did the latter under the watching guise of England caretaker chief Stuart Pearce, and O’Neill feels he would be good enough if the Three Lions call came.
“Why shouldn’t he aim for that?” said the Sunderland boss – who was a left-footed midfielder during his own playing days.
“Over the next season I expect Jack Colback to really push on. I’ve got a lot of time for him as a player and a person. I think he is up to that challenge.
“He’s got lovely control of the ball and left-footed players are infinitely more attractive to watch than right-footed ones.
“He’s got a little deceptive turn, I think he should really start to believe he is good enough. I think he is getting that confidence. I left him out on Tuesday, but he was the first name on the team sheet at the weekend.”
As pleased as O’Neill was with Colback’s performance on Saturday, his place is still under threat with the return of skipper Lee Cattermole for tonight’s FA Cup last-eight replay at home to Everton.
The Sunderland boss is yet to decide whether to hand Cattermole an immediate recall but his high-octane intensity would come in useful against a Toffees side that illustrated their ability on their
travels by beating in-form Swansea on Saturday.
“It’s going to be hard on someone when I leave them out,” he said. “David Vaughan has been excellent and, since he decided homesickness was no longer a problem, Craig Gardner’s been terrific.”
Cattermole’s return comes with an admission from O’Neill that he is looking for disciplinary improvements from his captain.
It is a familiar refrain for Sunderland managers, and the Ulsterman’s frustration with Cattermole’s ill-discipline revealed itself when he chided the midfielder for his “silly sending-off” at St James’ Park.
There has been no hairdryer treatment for Cattermole, though. O’Neill believes those improvements can only come from within. He said: “In the heat of the moment we can all say some daft things, but when emotions are running high, the referee has taken exception to what he has said about the way he has refereed the game.
“When you are sat in the dressing room after the game and you find out one of your players has been sent off, you’re not happy. I wasn’t pleased.
“I think he has to come to realise that to play is more important than to not play. How many times he plays, the person has to take responsibility for the number of games they miss (through suspension).
“He still picks up silly bookings, at Peterborough for example. We’re leading 2-0, there are five minutes to go and the player goes past him so he fouls him. I could understand if it was 1-0 or 0-0.
“He admitted it was pretty stupid. You might think fine, but it’s another booking and they add up and you find yourself suspended again.”
Today is a big day for the Black Cats, with the club set to announce their financial figures this morning before competing for a Wembley FA Cup semi-final date in front of a 40,000-plus crowd at the Stadium of Light tonight.
O’Neill can sense something “special” in the mood on Wearside, which will afford his side terrific backing as they push for a last-four place for the first time in eight years.
“I think there’s something pretty special about it when you get to this stage of the competition,” he said.
“I think you can get caught up in the atmosphere, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. We want to try to get through, the fans have been excited about it.”