MARTIN O’Neill’s decision to fast-track James McClean has given the whole of Sunderland football club a lift, he believes.
Winger McClean’s second goal for the Black Cats extended their run to five wins in their last six Premier League games. That has lifted Wearside morale immeasurably, but O’Neill thinks the identities of the players behind last week’s victories helped too.
McClean was yet to make his first-team debut when O’Neill took over in early December, but has missed only one game since. Meanwhile on Saturday David Meyler became the second Sunderland player to make his first start this season after two cruciate ligament injuries. Fraizer Campbell, rested to the bench for the 1-0 win over Stoke City, did likewise on Wednesday.
O’Neill has made a habit of plucking out unheralded young players at his new clubs, like McClean – an August signing from Derry City.
“First of all that player has to have reasonable ability, you don’t want to fast-track somebody who is useless – I have tried that before!” joked the manager. “But James McClean is far from useless.
“We have done it before, it has been great. It has been great to see the progress of a young (Emile) Heskey, a young (Gabriel) Agbonlahor. It is fantastic.
“In the case of Agbonlahor he had nearly gone to Birmingham City the previous season and so just to get a young kid like that in there was brilliant, so there are comparisons with Agbonlahor you could draw, and a young Heskey at Leicester City.”
O’Neill understands the psychological impact on the club’s junior teams.
“I was speaking to our academy director (Ged McNamee), and James didn’t come through the academy, but he said it gives everybody a lift,” he said. “All the young players who see him going into the team get a boost to think they can do it too. We have five or six players now who have a possibility of making the grade we have sent out on loan. James has made the breakthrough and they feel they can too if they can get games and come back as fit as possible.
“It has been very positive not only for the player himself and for us at first-team level, but for the whole club.”
Meyler ruptured his cruciate knee ligaments in the final home game of 2009-10, and suffered a recurrence last season. On Saturday the midfielder was unwittingly involved in controversy, with Robert Huth sent off for a reckless challenge on him.
O’Neill acknowledged the effect Meyler’s return will have on club morale too. “We have had another big lift with Fraizer coming back and doing so well,” said O’Neill, who left Campbell on the bench after Wednesday’s goalscoring return against Norwich City.
“The medical team tell me to be worried about a lot of games quickly for him. Fraizer was very keen but decided not to play him.” O’Neill arrived at the Stadium of Light with an impressive reputation but the scale and speed of Sunderland’s improvement under him has surprised everyone.
“If you’d asked me before the Blackburn game (his first in charge) if we’d get this many points by now, I would have said it was a very tall order,” O’Neill admitted. “Winning the first game was really important. We can’t put it all down to that I am sure. But (it gave) confidence because the players had lost games before. Confidence even with very good players is brittle.”