MARTIN O’Neill believes that a Stadium of Light rejig has improved Sunderland’s chances of finally making home advantage count against neighbours Newcastle United, writes STUART RAYNER.
The teams meet tomorrow at a stadium which has been a happier derby-day hunting ground for the Magpies than the Black Cats. Sunderland have beaten Newcastle once there since it opened in 1997, extending a miserable sequence to one home win in 32 years.
That record surprised boyhood Sunderland fan-turned manager O’Neill (pictured right) when presented with it this week.
“Good Lord, is that right?” he exclaimed. “I can’t give you an answer why that is at this moment.
“About an hour ago I was really looking forward to it... Can somebody give me a drop of whisky in my water now?!”
Joking aside, O’Neill has taken steps to improve Sunderland’s home form generally by rubber-stamping a plan to relocate visiting supporters. Instead of the south end, Newcastle fans’ vantage point for the 1.30pm kick-off will be in the north stand’s top tier.
“I do think it makes the difference,” commented O’Neill. “I did it at (previous club Aston) Villa, although I think the idea had already been thought about (at Sunderland).
“I did endorse it and I think it made a really big difference to Villa.
“A ground like Sunderland is really atmospheric when the crowd get behind you.
“I think Villa, the kind of ground it is, had a similar feeling when you have got fans behind both goals and there’s noise emanating from that.
“It is less intimidating for your goalkeeper, for a start. He’s not under severe pressure. And of course, if we’re ever involved in a League Cup or FA Cup penalty shoot-out, we’ll have it at both ends!”
Sunderland have played three games with the new layout – one a League Cup tie against League Two Morecambe – and O’Neill has been encouraged. Their record is won two, drawn one.
“The two (Premier League) games we’ve played at home this season have evoked a really decent atmosphere,” he said. “I thought they (the fans) were really encouraging against Wigan, particularly when we needed them, and this game they will want us to do very well in, obviously.
“I want us to win this game for everybody and the fans become paramount. It’s their day. I hope the players are up for the game, and I’m hoping I’m up for it myself.”
The last two years of derbies have raised questions about Sunderland’s mental strength – seemingly frightened by the occasion in October 2010, and unable to win even when they have outplayed their rivals since.
That, and the way they were so comprehensively beaten by Everton in the biggest match of O’Neill’s reign to date – an FA Cup quarter-final replay – has put their mentality under the microscope.
“Freeze is a big word,” the manager replied when asked if he was worried that fate might befall his side this time. “That was the best Everton played. We played well under-par and Everton played brilliantly.”
If Sunderland are to win, they will be looking to August’s big-money signings. Steven Fletcher has already begun repaying his £12m transfer fee with five goals in as many Premier League games.
Adam Johnson is yet to have much impact following his £10m transfer from Manchester City, thanks to the disruptions of inter-national football and injury.
With the former out of the way for now – and O’Neill will hope the latter too – he is looking to the winger to find his feet.
“I think we can expect better from him now we’re starting to get into the nitty gritty of matches,” he said. “We’ve played six games since August but there’s no real international break between now and the spring, and he should start to feel a bit better.”