MARTIN O’Neill has been in charge a matter of days, but a new direction is definitely discernible at Sunderland.
Blessedly so, for the old way of thinking under Steve Bruce had become tired and worn out – supporters ground down by the idea that they should be somehow grateful for last season’s tenth-place finish.
Seb Larsson’s stunning late free-kick – which beat Blackburn on Sunday and provided a fantastic footnote to a beautiful first chapter of O’Neill’s time at the club – may have only boosted the Black Cats league position to 16th, but it is clear that with the Northern Irishman at the helm they do not intend to stay there for long.
Writing in Sunday’s programme club owner and chairman Ellis Short – hitherto preferring to be seen rather than heard on his frequent visits to Wearside – made it very clear that Bruce’s way of thinking will not be tolerated in the new era.
“We are aiming to become a club for whom top-10 finishes in the Premier League are the norm,” penned the Texan in the match day magazine.
It rather got lost in the general hullabaloo that followed that free-kick winner, but that is some statement of intent on the part of the Sunderland chief.
For the record, Sunderland have only finished in the top 10 of the top division on three occasions since 1954.
Two of those came under Peter Reid in the late 1990s, one came under Bruce last season – achieved with virtually the last kick of a campaign which frittered out so frustratingly.
If O’Neill can turn around those decades of under-achievement, it will be a major fillip for a man with an impressive managerial CV.
His teams have only finished outside the top 10 on one occasion – Aston Villa finished 11th in his first season at Villa Park – but otherwise he is used to occupying what has become rarefied ground for the Black Cats.
There is no doubt that the system is suddenly a lot more loaded against a club like Sunderland becoming major players in the Premier League. A sprinkling of very damaging demotions over the last decade had a serious effect on the club – both in terms of finances missed out on during Championship campaigns and also mentality.
For there remains a healthy air of fatalism about some Sunderland fans that, even after the appointment of O’Neill, will take some shifting. Boos at half-time, as half-hearted as they were, are proof that some habits die hard.
Financial fair play rules that will be implemented over coming seasons also mean that the route that opened up for Manchester City will be blocked to Sunderland.
Of course Short, as wealthy and influential as he is, does not boast the sort of resources that are open to members of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi but the Black Cats are acutely aware of the need for financial responsibility. That means splurges of the sort that ushered in Bruce’s first summer are unlikely – although not entirely unthinkable, provided the club’s off-the-field efforts begin to reap rewards.
Still, Sunderland are better placed than most of the chasing pack to capitalise on a period of uncertainty in the English game.
Of the 20 clubs in the top flight chasing regular top-half finishes, not many are better supported – and even fewer have a public as passionate and loyal as Sunderland’s.
Expectations became the bugbear of Bruce but in truth, not too many are demanding top ten every year. What they want is a club that represents the values of the region – hard work, bravery, ingenuity and fierce commitment – and a leader who understands that they need to be allowed to dream once in a while.
In O’Neill – who will provide an instant draw for potential new recruits – they have that.
And in Short, they appear to have an owner who has banished any question marks surrounding his commitment – and is set to spend in January to help his new manager.
It is a new power couple at the helm of Sunderland that should provide optimism that the Black Cats can buck the trend.
Those are concerns for the long-term, but in the here and now O’Neill will be thankful for the immediate impact he has been able to make.
The players have been given a few days off to recover from their stunning late renaissance on Sunday, but for O’Neill, there is no time to lose in his mission to turn things around.
Transfer targets must be sourced in weeks when other clubs have had months to do it while a hefty assignment at White Hart Lane awaits this weekend. But at least he has three points under his belt – a major, major leap forward that could be significant in the long-term.
Down the road at Newcastle United, Alan Pardew still insists his most important victory in charge of the Magpies was the 3-1 win over Liverpool just a few days after he had taken over.
It infused the club with confidence and gave him both breathing space and a result to cling to as proof that he was a capable boss.
No one ever doubted that with O’Neill, but the late turnaround and the fact his substitutions were so bold and emphatic has helped him immensely.
James McClean has been at the Stadium of Light since August, first billed as “one for the future” following his £350,000 move from Derry City. It took just a matter of days for O’Neill to send for him straight away following a fine midweek reserve outing.
Suddenly at Sunderland, there is no time to waste.
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