CAN Martin O’Neill keep Sunderland clear of relegation?
With such a good squad at his disposal, Jeff Stelling thinks he could! Instead he thinks their focus should be landing the goalscorer who can help them to match last season’s rare top-half finish.
“When Martin O’Neill took over we had a discussion in the Soccer Saturday studio and I asked the lads where Sunderland should aim to finish this season,” he recalls.
“A couple of them said their ambition should be to ‘avoid relegation’. I said with the squad they have got I could get them to avoid relegation!
“They’ve got so many good players from Keiren Westwood – who I’ve always thought was a good player – in goal, to Stéphane Sessègnon, who doesn’t do it every game, but is another good player.
“I think they should be looking at tenth, 11th, this season if Martin can find someone who can put the ball in the back of the net.”
Connor Wickham was given that job in O’Neill’s first two games in charge, before a knee injury intervened at Tottenham Hotspur.
In the long-term Stelling believes Sunderland’s most expensive teenager could prove to be money well spent, but doubts he will be the answer to the Black Cats’ problems just yet. “Next season we could be saying, ‘What a good buy’ but it’s a big ask to ask a young kid to play that (targetman) role,” he says.
“Martin likes to play with a big targetman but whether he thinks Connor Wickham is that centre-forward or not, I don’t know. It will be interesting to see in the transfer window whether there’s any money and if that’s the priority. I suspect it is.”
O’Neill’s predecessor Steve Bruce led the Black Cats to tenth last season, only their third top-half finish in 55 years.
Stelling thinks Bruce was let down by his ten senior summer signings, but that the tools are therefore in place to turn around the Wearsiders’ fortunes.
“We were sorry to see Steve Bruce go because he’s a top bloke, but I think Steve brought some decent players in who haven’t done the job for him,” says Stelling.
“David Vaughan was one of them and in his first game for Martin O’Neill (at home to Blackburn Rovers) he smashes a brilliant equaliser.
“When Craig Gardner came in the summer I thought he was a really good signing, a midfield player who could get stuck in and score goals. Everyone’s a bit wary of taking players from Man United because not many go on to be as good as elsewhere, but in Wes Brown and John O’Shea the looked like they’d made two good signings.
“Connor Wickham’s another one who hasn’t produced yet.
“People thought they’d brought in a lot of good footballers and they’d do well this season.
“Martin O’Neill is one of the great characters of the game. He’s got huge passion and a fantastic track record.
“I was interested to hear that when he’d been away he’d hardly gone to any football. I’m sure he’s totally up to speed, though.”
:: Jeff Stelling was speaking on behalf of Soccer Saturday Super 6, the free-to-enter online predictor game with a weekly jackpot of £100,000. Go to www.skysports.com/super6 for more details.