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

Comments (7)
Comment by jameswba 2012-01-06 12:39:37

The Wolves game was not one of Bruce's final games. He'd been sacked by then and O'Neill was watching from the stands.

I suspect O'Neill will establish Sunderland as a top-half to mid-table club and banish the usual fears of relegation. But just hope you don't qualify for the Europa League. His attitude to the UEFA Cup with Villa suggests he won't give a toss - and then you'll start wondering what the point of all that improvement was.

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath II 2012-01-06 15:10:07

That's a slightly odd thing to say about a manager who also got to the UEFA Cup final and came close to winning it.

Comment by jameswba 2012-01-06 15:24:05

But perhaps not such such an odd thing to say about one who took Villa's reserve/youth team to an away tie in Moscow because he had an oh-so crucial home game against Stoke (which they only drew anyway) coming up four days later?

Comment by el gato negro 2012-01-06 15:45:36

As a cynical Sunderland fan I am a bit worried about O'Neill playing a weakened team, especially after what he did with Villa in Moscow. But he seems to be saying the right things so far. Let's see.

Comment by Janik 2012-01-07 12:16:49

A game against Stoke when Villa were 4th in the league, and had a very serious prize to chase. That Villa collapsed afterwards is something I take as an indication that their players were running on empty and needed all the rest they could get.
Nice though it might be to try and win every competition a club enters, sometimes it's just not a practicle possibility and some prioritisation has to be done. However, it's extremely unlikely that Sunderland will be in the running for a CL place, so the same situation of having to waive the Europa League is unlikely to arise.

Comment by jameswba 2012-01-07 12:44:20

'....had a very serious prize to chase' I thought prizes were what you got for actually winning things, not for finishing 4th instead of 5th or 6th. 'Serious money to chase' would be more accurate.

It might be that Villa 'collapsed' after that Stoke game because they were knackered and needed the rest. It could also be that O'Neill's attitude to the Moscow tie caused some damage to the team-spirit. The Villa fans I know agree that it divided the fan-base, turning quite a few against the manager.

Comment by ian.64 2012-01-07 18:39:48

I can tolerate O'Neill's return to management but I'd find myself scratching the flesh off my face with a steak knife in seething fury if a commentator coos about the man's propensity to jump about like a Tasmainian Devil with a host of bees trapped up its fundament at moments of excitement. There's a tendency for pundits to go all sloppy in a 'look what it means to him' kind of way, which gets on my tits. Yes, he gets excited. We've noticed.

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