Stoke 0-1 Sunderland: Daily Mirror match report
Published 21:32 05/02/12 By Simon Bird
Martin O’Neill admits he is “astonished” by Sunderland’s points haul since he took charge.
The question is: How has it happened?
What magic has O’Neill worked to guide a team that looked like relegation candidates, drained of confidence and alarmingly one-dimensional, into a winning Premier League machine?
Sunderland have played 10 league games since the Ulsterman took charge in early December, mopping up 22 points from seven wins and a draw.
The only defeats have been at Chelsea and Spurs, top class opponents.
A limited, long-ball obsessed Stoke were brushed aside with the now trademark hard work, pressing, and incisive speedy attacks.
O’Neill has a formula for success and it is based on simplicity. Easy to follow instructions drummed home all week during training.
Coaxing players low on self- esteem back to form. Galvanising team spirit.
Communicating his infectious enthusiasm, and intelligent demeanour that lacks ego and hyperbole, on to his players.
Discovering a gem in the reserves also helps. James McClean certainly fits that bill, scoring a brilliantly-taken second-half winner here.
Stephane Sessegnon is also one who has taken off under O’Neill, given a consistent role causing havoc up front rather than the left wing.
In defence, John O’Shea has also blossomed, and the whole side is benefiting from consistent team selection, with only minor tinkering.
Asked to explain the resurgence, O’Neill said: “Winning that first game against Manchester City was a big moment, but we can’t put it all down to that.
“There is the confidence factor too. Even the best players can be bereft with no self-belief because of that.
“Also, it is important players go and play their natural game. During the week, if you can help and instruct properly and simplify things, then players can do it properly. The last thing you want to do is three minutes before you go out give them three new instructions. That is preposterous.”
Not for the first time O’Neill had the European question thrown his way. An unlikely Europa League qualification? “Foolhardy, foolhardy,” he replied.
“If you’d told me before the Blackburn game that we’d get this many points by now I would have been astonished.”
Then a bandwagon that will only quicken if his success on Wearside continues – the England job.
“I think Harry Redknapp will be the next England manager and he will deserve that,” he replied.
Unearthing McClean has been a major bonus, and his goal (celebrated by making a heart shape sign for his girlfriend), after a great one-two with Sessegnon settled the match.
The quality level was hampered by treacherous conditions with snow building up on the pitch. “Borderline,” was how O’Neill described the finishing blizzard scene.
The sending-off of Robert Huth for a scything slide on David Meyler was also hugely influential. But in reality Stoke’s usual tactic of humping the ball to the strikers was unsuitable for the ice, as the flick-ons invariably skidded out of play.
But this was a day for explanations surrounding the Miracle of Martin.
Skipper O’Shea chipped in: “He’s been inspirational for us. It’s the recipe for success that he brings, the belief he brings, the team he has around him, the whole package.
“The players have to respond and do it on the pitch, and thankfully we have been doing that.
“We’ve got a massive replay on Wednesday to look forward to now (against Middlesbrough). If we get through that we’ve got Arsenal at home in the Cup. That’s a massive opportunity for us.
“The manager has said Europe’s far away from our minds. We’re not talking about that, we’re not thinking about that at all. We just want to get as many points as we can.”
Just as O’Neill likes it. No hype or big talk. Just step-by-step progress.