MARTIN O’Neill has admitted Sunderland’s lack of goalscorers has left them looking nervously over their shoulders, but he did not expect them to be doing anything else.
The Black Cats were unable to hold an early lead Steven Fletcher gave them against the run of play at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, where they lost 3-1.
With Wigan Athletic busy qualifying for the FA Cup semi-finals and Reading losing to Aston Villa, the gap between Sunderland and the Premier League relegation zone remains six points, with nine matches to play.
But after Sunday’s visit of Norwich City, they face Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle United and Everton in a difficult start to the run-in. The remaining games are against Aston Villa, Stoke City, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur.
A lack of goal threat was Sunderland’s biggest failing on Saturday. Danny Graham played his fifth game for the club without scoring, and Fletcher’s goal was only his third since Christmas, although with only two shots on target from the entire team, the problems run far deeper.
“The disappointment was when we’d gone 2-1 behind (to a 71st-minute goal from Andros Townsend) there was still enough time to grab an equaliser,” O’Neill reflected. “I don’t think we put enough pressure on to try and do that because we haven’t really got enough goalscorers in our team.”
With James McClean taken ill last week, O’Neill had precious few options to change that with four defenders on the bench. Only Carlos Cuellar of his seven substitutes had scored this season, and only once – in November. Striker Connor Wickham should at least return from his loan with Sheffield Wednesday this week after marking his final game with a maiden goal, the only strike at Leicester City.
“We had a lot of defenders on the bench but at the moment that’s all we have,” O’Neill acknowledged.
“(Lee) Cattermole is injured, (Wes) Brown’s been out all season so we can discount that.
“The only other one we had is James McClean, who was ill.
“He got let out of hospital around about 11 o’clock on Saturday morning having spent the last two days on a drip.
“We had a lot of defenders on the bench but that wasn’t anything planned, that was just lack of choice.”
That three absentees can leave the Wearsiders so light is alarming, particularly considering Cattermole has never scored for the Black Cats, and Brown has as many own goals as regulation ones (one) in his Sunderland career.
It was O’Neill’s decision to sell Fraizer Campbell, loan out Ji-Dong-won and release Louis Saha and James McFadden in January.
While none of them have been prolific either, replacing four strikers with just £5m Graham does not yet seem to have worked.
Slightly disconcertingly, considering he also paid £22m for Fletcher and Adam Johnson in August, O’Neill insists he always expected his side to be fighting relegation come March.
“I’m not surprised at all,” he said.
“I knew right from the off it was going to be very, very tough and it’s been like that all season, every game we play.”
That said, he does feel his players have been hard done-by in the last six matches, none of them won.
“In the last number of games we’ve played my own view is we shouldn’t have been beaten in these games,” he said.
“We put severe pressure on Arsenal, couldn’t get the ball over the line, at West Bromwich Albion I thought any piece of luck going was going with the home team. But you can say that forever and a day, we have to turn it (around).”
Wickham told Sheffield Wednesday’s official website he was “happy to be here” at the weekend, but O’Neill’s comments, and his disclosure last week that opposite number Dave Jones has not been in touch about extending the player’s month-long stay, points to a return.
“I’m really enjoying myself but it’s down to the clubs now and what will be will be,” said Wickham.