6 January ~ While five consecutive seasons in the Premier League may represent stability and success in terms of Sunderland's recent history, the years since Roy Keane took over as manager in 2006 have been anything but calm. With Martin O'Neill's arrival, an incredible start and 13 points from the last six games, however, Sunderland fans another have new dawn to look forward to. The FA Cup third round this weekend has come at an ideal time for our new boss.
Steve Bruce's sacking in November was sad but necessary. Despite an irritating habit of blaming everyone but himself for bad results, he seemed a genuinely nice guy. Yet the huge changes at the club since then have more than justified his departure. While everything, from tactics to interviews, was weighed down by negativity under Bruce, O'Neill has reversed the atmosphere.
Sunderland lost from winning positions against Wolves and Wigan in Bruce's final games, while under O'Neill the team have won in the dying minutes on three occasions. While there is an element of good fortune here, a psychological shift is also clear. Most promisingly, since O'Neill started, goals have been scored by nine different players.
O'Neill is known for his man-management skills, but he has also drilled the simple things well. As David Pleat pointed out in the Guardian, despite a depleted squad, Sunderland beat Manchester City with a balanced team, using three left-footed players on the left side. This simply would have not have happened under Bruce's muddled thinking.
Counter-attacking teams are rarely popular – the Wigan and Manchester City message boards didn't really give Sunderland any credit after their defeats – but the players have understood the benefits of defending sturdily while attacking directly, and the system is working very well so far.
Sunderland visit Peterborough in the FA Cup next. For Premier League accountants, board members and most managers, the final league position is all-important. But as the Fair Play regulations pull up the financial ladder behind the richest clubs, for mid-ranking sides the cup competitions are now the only real chance of something to remember in a season geared towards mid-table.
For most fans the FA Cup is more significant than ever before. Due to a famous win at Wembley in 1973, the Cup has a somewhat overblown mythical status on Wearside. As Lance Hardy, author of Stokoe, Sunderland and 1973, tweeted earlier this week: "The FA Cup final falls on May 5 this year too." The positivity at the Stadium Of Light is infectious, Sunderland fans will enjoy it while it lasts. Ed Upright