MARTIN O’Neill last night admitted he understood why Manchester United were still angry about Sunderland fans celebrating when they lost the league title in May at the Stadium of Light.
However, the Black Cats manager told Sir Alex Ferguson and his players not to take the events of the final game of last season so personally.
Manchester United’s manager insisted he would not forget the way the home fans cheered and taunted the visitors when news filtered though Manchester City had dramatically sealed the championship in injury time against QPR at the Etihad.
Ferguson claimed revenge would not be a factor today, although he said: “The Sunderland fans’ reaction was disappointing given the number of players we have given them down the years, but there was no malice in it and there is no element of revenge.”
In his autobiography, Wayne Rooney said he would be looking forward to the Sunderland fixture this season more than most.
Sunderland manager O’Neill said: “I understand because they had just lost the championship and saw the opposition fans reacting to what happened in that way. I have to say had it been in reverse and it was Manchester City who had lost out I think Sunderland fans would have been cheering on United. I genuinely believe that.
“On the day it was hurtful to lose the title and of course it is something you would pay attention to, but I am never sure in the case of Manchester United you can play with any stronger view or feeling you would normally. That is why they win championships.”
If O’Neill leads Sunderland to what would be an unlikely victory this afternoon then he would become the first manager to beat Ferguson at Old Trafford with three different clubs – Leicester City and Aston Villa being the others.
Were Sunderland were to triumph at Old Trafford it would be the first time they have done so since 1968.
O’Neill added: “We had a decent team at Leicester. We were durable. When we went there with Villa we were maybe, outside of United, as good a counter-attacking side at that.
“I don’t think there is any question this will be tough for us, but we gained a boost of confidence from Tuesday so we go into it with confidence.
“You cannot treat this game as one where there is nothing to lose.
“We can go there with confidence and while the expectation from outside would not be great it doesn’t matter because we have to go and compete.
“I think the players are genuinely looking forward to it.
“We have a real battle on against Manchester United, but we can go there with confidence because of the result during the week and actually go and play with freedom as well.
“Someone was suggesting a few days ago these are not our battles but that’s not the point.
“We have to go and compete every week in this league and I don’t think you can start to allocate points here and take points away there. Go and play.”
Adam Johnson suffered a dead leg against Reading and Danny Rose he picked up a knock on his ankle, although both are expected to make it today.
However, defender Phil Bardsley looks set to be ruled out after he damaged knee ligaments.