CALL Sunderland a soft touch within earshot of Martin O’Neill and you might get an angry email.
MARTIN O’Neill has been annoyed this week. So annoyed he almost wrote an angry email. He claims the only thing that stopped him was not having Roberto Mancini’s email address.
What riled Sunderland’s manager was the suggestion from Manchester City’s that after Monday’s derby, title rivals Manchester United’s last two games were “easy”.
It was all part of the much-trumpeted mind games which have become such a feature of Premier League title races since Kevin Keegan’s infamous tantrum live on television.
The Italian will be pleased to discover he has got under O’Neill’s skin. That, one suspects, was the aim all along.
Whether he needed to bother is open to debate. As all good professionals should, those in the Premier League pride themselves on the cliché that in England’s top-flight there are no easy games.
Sunderland should know – they failed to beat dismal Wolverhampton Wanderers home or away this season.
It is a point they will hope to prove if Manchester United pitch up at the Stadium of Light on the final day without title No.20 in the bag.
For those in mid-table, this can be a troublesome time of year. The Wearsiders know their obligations – to their fans, their profession and those like Mancini depending on them for favours.
Today Mark Hughes, Steve Kean, Roberto Martinez and Alex McLeish will be Sunderland supporters for an afternoon, when relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers visit the Stadium of Light.
While O’Neill will insist until he is blue in the face there is still plenty to play for – the difference between a strong finish and a limp one could literally run into millions of pounds – it is still hard to drag performances out of weary players. Is it any coincidence that the Black Cats have not won since going out of the FA Cup to Everton?
It goes against everything O’Neill believes in to go through the motions, which is why he was so prickly about Mancini’s pointed comment.
“It took me by surprise,” he says. “He obviously hadn’t checked that the games (United) play are against teams that have beaten Manchester City (this season) – Swansea and ourselves.
“We have taken four points off them but they have actually lost five against us. I think you have to shrug it off and remember it for the next four years!
“I don’t have an email address, but I really thought about sending him one to tell him to keep an eye on what he says. But I didn’t.
“If he had any idea about the league at all he would know the integrity of this league is pretty good, pretty strong.
“There was talk some time ago when Mick (McCarthy, then of Wolves) sent a (weakened) side to Manchester United because he needed points elsewhere during the season and I understand people being up in arms about that. But you have 25 players and it is hard for someone else to come in and tell you who to play but there is still that feeling you want to win the matches.”
That said, much as O’Neill wants to win, his actions sometimes betray him. Sebastian Larsson and Kieran Richardson have both been sent for hernia operations they would probably have delayed were they in Bolton’s shoes today. Fringe players will feel the benefit. The fans could too, with O’Neill promising to make entertainment, not results, his “top priority” after Sunderland failed to score in five of their last six games.
“Wolves was a game where people came down and want to see us do better, we need to show that,” he says. “I think that is very important. I want people to come down to watch a game and feel we attack as often we can.
“We want Sess (striker Stéphane Sessègnon, who has had two shots on target in his last 10 Premier League games) to look well and (James) McClean, and we want to pass better, make some chances and then people coming would be happier than they would watching a drab affair. I don’t want a drab affair.
“We were brilliant against Man City and I want that back again. We want to provide entertainment, which is really important because we might as well. That is a top priority.”
Another is putting squad players under the microscope.
“The bulk of the players, I know their ability inside and out,” O’Neill says. “One or two younger players I would love to find out about, particularly Ji (Dong-won) and (David) Meyler.
“Meyler has not had a proper chance, but he’s not moaned about it, he’s just said he would like to play and he needs to play and we need to address that. His first choice would be playing for Sunderland but at some stage or other he has to play. I understand that. It is actually commendable.”