ABOUT two thirds of the way through Martin O’Neill’s pre-match media briefing, he moved to re-assert control of the red and white agenda.
The morning press call had begun with talk about the immediacy of Sunderland’s predicament but had started to drift towards more abstract themes like red-and-white progress and ambition.
Given the lack of momentum generated this season and the recent results, it would have been a dereliction of duty not to ask the manager about the direction the club is heading in.
At first, the manager had indulged that line of questioning but this was one question too far. Back to Norwich, he seemed to be saying.
O’Neill said: “You know, I don’t mind sitting down with you all and having this discussion.
“I think now, with nine games left . . . We have to get the points on the board and then I will do it with pleasure.
“Talk about the season and what the future might be. I will do it with pleasure then.”
The message from O’Neill appears to be clear – the inquest is postponed until the threat of relegation disappears.
Not that there won’t be a reckoning in the close season, of course.
It was no slip of the tongue when the Sunderland boss twice repeated his extraordinary assertion this is a squad lacking the “ability” to keep it clear of a prolonged battle near the bottom of the table.
He knows new players are required and will attempt to use this season’s struggles as leverage with Ellis Short when a budget is mapped out.
Perhaps he will look to review the scouting network too, having acknowledged in private others have overtaken the club when it comes to discovering rough diamonds in the global market.
Sunderland’s biggest successes have been in the domestic market of late, with Steven Fletcher a significant plus on the signings ledger.
January’s buys have been less clear-cut, with Kader Mangane apparently not trusted to play in the centre of defence and Alfred N’Diaye failing to build on a promising red and white bow.
Compare and contrast with the work done by Swansea, Newcastle, Celtic and others in the global market and it is no wonder this is near the top of the close- season agenda on Wearside.
However, O’Neill seemed to be suggesting, what use is talking about that when the team is six points clear of the drop zone with a run of menacing fixtures ahead?
It is particularly pointless this year, when a TV booty of more than £1billion will be shared out between the teams that remain in the Premier League in the middle of May. A fortnight ago, chief executive Margaret Byrne told The Journal the guaranteed £60million for being in the Premier League would enable the Black Cats to break even, keep their best players and invest in the squad this summer.
What would happen if they lost that reward really doesn’t bear thinking about – and O'Neill acknowledged the ability of that money to change the entire direction of the club.
He added: “Absolutely – staying in the Premier League is vitally important.
“There’s probably that added pressure of doing that this season.
“I don’t know what the size of the parachute payments is for relegated sides, I genuinely don’t know that.
“I think that it’s true that it could change the direction. I don’t know exactly the change in financial situation but it’s a vast improvement.
“It is essential we stay in the league, not just for the finance but for the general progress of the club.
“For us winning two matches between now and then is of vital importance. Course, the sooner you do it the better.
“You wouldn’t want to be going into the final two games of the season where anything can happen.
“It’s important we win and if we can, first of all it relieves pressure and secondly you start to think ‘we’re back to winning again’.
“We won back-to-back games against West Ham and Wigan and went into the Swansea game thinking we’re capable of kicking on. Then you lose two and you look around to see where the next point is coming from. That’s the nature of the league.”
The acute need for points is understood by the current crop of players, who cancelled a trip to Cheltenham this week because of the results.
It wouldn’t have looked right for the squad to take their usual spring sabbatical to the races and O’Neill confirmed the club’s opinion was they needed to put points on the board before they turned punters for the day.
He said: “The sooner we can get the points the better.
“I’ve been asked about whether there isa side that drops down, but I’ve never felt like we’ve been out of it.
“So it’s important for us to win. My mindset is the same as it has been for most of the season.”
If it sounds attritional and worrying for Sunderland, O’Neill offered certain reassurances.
Ambition continues to burn beneath his furrowed brow and when asked if his Black Cats could one day aspire to match Everton his answer was swift and to the point.
He added: “I totally agree with that. Everton are the case in point.
“There is absolutely no reason why Sunderland can not be there. Sunderland, and I’ve said this before, are not a top-six team by any stretch of the imagination but we are a top-six club in the making. I’ll believe that until I leave this earth.”