Ups and downs and overall progress for Sunderland

Martin O’Neill’s first year in charge has been a mixed bag but, viewed in context, still a reasonably successful one.

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill
Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill

Martin O’Neill’s first year in charge has been a mixed bag but, viewed in context, still a reasonably successful one. Stuart Rayner reports.

ON Wednesday Martin O’Neill will have been Sunderland’s manager for a year.

Landmarks such as these bring cause for reflection and, in the case of the Black Cats’ manager, a modicum of satisfaction.

Sunderland are not having a great season, and could even be in the Premier League relegation zone by the time they kick off at Carrow Road tomorrow. But the fact they are still in the top flight is an achievement given the parlous predicament he inherited last December.

By getting his successes in first, in a brilliant run of form in his opening three-and-a-half months O’Neill was able to have fans dreaming about Portugal and Italy rather than Peterborough and Ipswich. Now those happy events have been overtaken by a more miserable run of form.

But taking a step back, if O’Neill’s form was spread over a season, it would be one of achievement by Sunderland standards.

Top-half finishes are the yardstick by which the club should be measured and their haul from 37 games (top-flight seasons are 38) would have put them slap back in mid-table last term, and equalled their tally when Steve Bruce led them to 10th 12 months earlier.

“After 37 Premier League games I have got 47 points, so if we get a point it will equal the best since Peter Reid was here,” O’Neill points out.

They say the second season is always harder and, like James McClean, O’Neill has certainly found it that way.

The summer offered a chance to mould a squad more in his image, but things have not quite panned out as planned.

“This season we knew was going to be tough,” he insists. “We signed two players for money (Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher, for a combined £22m) and we have asked those two to play at the top of their ability, which Steven Fletcher has done. We have got work to do in the team. That is very obvious, that we have work to do. I intend to do it.

“The most important issue now is winning some football matches. On Tuesday any one of Fletcher’s chances could have won the game, but by the same token (Sunderland goalkeeper Simon) Mignolet made a great save as well. The games are in the balance, they are very tight.

“Little things can turn the course of a game but winning can restore confidence.”

O’Neill has been here before. His first season at Aston Villa was marked by an explosion in confidence and an 11-game unbeaten start, followed quickly by a 12-match sequence without a win.

“In the January window we took John Carew, Ashley Young and Shaun Maloney, who was out of contract at Celtic,” he recalls. “The changes gave us that impetus, although it wasn’t until Easter when we went unbeaten in the last 10 games. It stood us in good stead for the next season when we finished sixth. We possibly needed to have gone through that.”

Could January be the salvation this time around?

“It’s the one opportunity during the course of the season that you get (to buy players) and it would be inappropriate for us not to look at that,” says O’Neill. “We will try and strengthen if we can do. Most people will tell you it’s perhaps not the best time, but I’ve done it in the past and the players I’ve brought in have proved pretty successful, like Ashley Young.

“If you’re thinking of somebody capable of doing something pretty okay for the club for the next couple of years, then January’s no different to the summer time.”

That, though, is an eternity away to someone who says of his anniversary: “Sometimes I feel like it has been three months and other times, of course, it seems as if it has been a decade. That might have been just last week.”

For now the focus – again – has to be on beating the drop.

“Until you get the requisite number of points on the board I don’t see how you cannot (not) think like that,” O’Neill says when asked if, like his Newcastle United counterpart Alan Pardew, he sees his team as being embroiled in a struggle against relegation.

“It’s not something I would want to spend the rest of my time doing. But we have to really fight for every single point we get. It bothers me that you spend two or three years in the Premier League and suddenly you are (an established) Premier League side. I had this conversation with the chairman at Stoke (Peter Coates) a few months ago. Never for one minute does he think Stoke are an established Premier League side. It is always a fight. Newcastle got 60-odd points last season – you wouldn’t expect them to struggle this season, but it can happen.

“This is not management-speak – I hate the word ‘project’, there’s no such thing as a five or six-year ‘project’ in management any more – but we need a wee bit of time. I think that’s very, very obvious. But I expect it to be successful.”

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