THERE are few worse weekends to be trying to get anywhere than the last one before Christmas.
So the fixture computer has sent Sunderland to Southampton.
Yet there will be nearly 2,000 fans in the sold-out away section at St Mary’s this afternoon, illustrating the potential untapped on Wearside for decades.
“Last year we played Tottenham and then we played at QPR a couple of days before Christmas and we filled the stand behind the goal, which is absolutely remarkable support,” said manager Martin O’Neill, when reminded about the hordes making the 646-mile round trip to avoid getting dragged around the Bridges shopping centre by the missus. “That they’re travelling down to Southampton in their numbers three days before Christmas shows you all you need to know about this club. It’s great motivation for us to achieve some-thing.”
As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland admiring Sunderland from afar, he is well aware of its supporters’ passion.
“You work every single day to try and put a mark on the club and improve results and it’s for people like that who’re the heart and soul of the football club,” O’Neill argued.
Quite how much Christmas cheer will be on the coaches heading home tonight remains to be seen, but in his determination to pull Sunderland out of relegation trouble, O’Neill has been careful not to knock the Festive spirit out of his players.
Christmas always brings talk of football parties nowadays.
Thankfully few lurid details of over-exuberance have emerged, but there is always talk of who has banned festivities. Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew played Scrooge this month, but O’Neill allowed his players their evening of fun.
“I think our lads organised something and it seemed to pass off rather quietly – well I’m hoping it did at least!” he joked. “I haven’t heard anything yet.
“In my day as a player I think managers very seldom knew anything about them. Maybe it would be a gathering of the boys in the local pub, followed by – dare I say, and I hate to use this word – a visit to a disco. Now players can rock up somewhere dressed in all kinds of gear.
“But it is once a year and if you feel the players can look after themselves there’s no point in putting a complete downer on it.”