MARTIN O’Neill says he has the “enthusiasm” to drag Sunderland out of the toughest situation he has faced in years of management.
The Black Cats entertain a Manchester United side looking for revenge tomorrow lunchtime.
Sitting just four points above the relegation zone, Sunderland have taken only three from the last 21 available.
And this week they learned top-scorer Steven Fletcher and captain Lee Cattermole will not play again this season.
It is a situation the like of which the 61-year-old cannot remember facing in a success-laden managerial career, but one he insists he is relishing.
“Am I as still determined? Enthused about the game? Actually, yeah, it is the enthusiasm you have to have, otherwise don’t do it,” he said in an edgy pre-match Press conference.
“If you are to ask (tomorrow’s opposite number) Sir Alex Ferguson what keeps him going at the age he is – obviously going into work with a brilliant team does help – but it’s that incredible enthusiasm he still retains.
“You can talk about determination and everything else, but I think they are secondary to enthusiasm.”
Some have questioned if the Ulsterman has lost his spark. He disagrees.
“I am what I am,” he responded. “If you are expecting me to step in to a Press conference after performing in the manner we did against Norwich and be jocular, you would tell me I needed my head examined.
“As a player I always concerned myself with losing matches, same as a manager. But it cannot last forever. I don’t know who was saying I was downbeat. That’s their opinion. I heard some people saying our performance against Norwich wasn’t ‘a Martin O’Neill team’.
“It is very easy to say that is a reflection of how he is feeling, but I am not sure that’s true.
“I genuinely don’t see it. Am I cracking jokes every three minutes? No, I’m not.
“By the time I have analysed it, done the Press conference, had small talk with the opposition manager, for an hour or two you think about the game, but then you have to get yourself up.”
O’Neill – never relegated as a manager – was struggling to think of comparable late-season experiences in his management career.
“Last season I came in here with more games to play with, the team had played 14 games and had dropped in to the bottom three,” he said. “You always felt you could get something going and maybe pull out of trouble. I can’t remember (a similar situation), certainly not in recent times.”
O’Neill, who spent Wednesday pressing the flesh with supporters at a couple of functions, is under no illusions about the mood on the terraces.
“We have not given them a great deal to support all season,” he admitted. “They are entitled to be frustrated. (I think) this is years of pent-up frustration that Sunderland have not won a trophy for 40 years.
“Our near-neighbours (Newcastle United), who are doing well in the Europa League, have not won anything for a long time. That could be a North East pent-up feeling. If that comes out in explosions of frustration, I understand it.
“If things are not going well, a couple of misplaced passes, anxiety can set in. We don’t want the players to play the ball the crowd want them to. They have to retain the composure to play the ball they see fit. That’s not just difficult here, that’s difficult at Anfield, at Old Trafford. But (Sunderland’s supporters) will genuinely get behind the side from the start.”
The game has extra spice for a Red Devils team motivated by the gloating of some Sunderland fans when they lost the Premier League title seconds after the final whistle of last season’s fixture.
Meanwhile, Alfreton have extended Jordan Pickford’s loan until the end of the season.
The England Under-19 keeper joined the Conference side on February 25, and is unbeaten with them.