By John Kallend
You would have received many answers if you asked followers of the Barclays Premier League which team they thought would fare best during the festive period. Perhaps the names of Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal or Manchester United would have appeared most frequently in such a poll. It is perhaps fair to say, therefore, that many would not have answered such a question with the name Sunderland.
However, as Martin O’Neill picks up the Barclays Manager of the Month for the eighth time in his career, Sunderland coming out on top over the festive period is exactly what has happened. Starting with a win at QPR on the 21st of December, O’Neill’s men have taken 10 points from a possible 12, 3 of which were taken from none other than leaders Manchester City.
So what, exactly, has O’Neill bought to the club? Typically vibrant on the touchline his own energy has extended to a team who looked devoid of life, at times, under former manager Steve Bruce. There is, possibly, no greater evidence of this new found energy than three of O’Neill’s four wins coming from late winners over Queens Park Rangers, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers respectively.
A squad beset by injury has meant the manager has also had to give opportunities, and more importantly belief, to players who were not used regularly, if at all, under Bruce. Matthew Killgallon was not even given a squad number at the start of the season by Bruce. Following recall from a loan at Championship side Doncaster, however, by new manager O’Neill, Killgallon was required to play an hour against none other than Manchester City after a first half injury to Wes Brown. An impressive performance as part of a mean Sunderland backline that day saw a recall to the side for 90 minutes against Wigan on Wednesday.
Elsewhere on the pitch James McClean, who despite being signed by former manager Bruce in the summer from Derry City failed to make a single appearance before the arrival of O’Neill, has also shone under the new manager. McClean has since talked of the lift the new manager has given the club after scoring in the 4-1 victory at Wigan on Wednesday. The 22 year old has received rave reviews for his performances in the last two games, and after ruling out a re-think over his current declaration to play for the Republic of Ireland, an international call-up may be in the offing.
After the victory over Manchester City O’Neill alluded to conversations with club chairman, Ellis Short, over what can be done in the current transfer window. It was, after all, a spectacular fall out with Aston Villa chairman Randy Lerner over finances that cut short O’Neill’s time at Villa Park. I would suggest that right now, for Ellis Short, Martin O’Neill is the right man to back.