Sunderland give O'Neill happy anniversary
It was a year to the day that Martin O'Neill won his first match in charge of Sunderland to move the club out of the bottom three - a feat he repeated once again thanks to a 3-0 home win over Reading.
Sunderland set a frantic early pace that their opponents seemed keen to allow them to indulge in. Feeling more like a cup tie, the high tempo garnered instant results for the home side. Martin O'Neill's trademark jig of delight has been seen only a few times at the Stadium of Light this season, but he was jumping inside three minutes when James McClean fired a low drive past Adam Federici - the Australian only able to parry the initial delivery.
Reading were stunned. As their defence struggled to hold its composure, Sunderland applied sustained pressure. At their best, they were fast and aggressive, taking the kind of risks that defender Phil Bardsley had asked of his teammates near the end of last month - although in truth their opponents showed little resistance.
And for all Sunderland's perceived dominance, the visitors still had their chances. From a free-kick, defender Alex Pearce poked an effort wide, with Jobi McAnuff also heading over the bar on the stroke of half-time. As the Royals are beginning to learn however, you gain nothing for half measures, with a clinical striker the recommended prescription.
In Steven Fletcher they had the ideal reference point. Far from a parsimonious acquisition (costing north of £12 million) his importance to Sunderland is highlighted by the fact he has recently been given painkilling injections in order to get him through matches.
The former Wolves and Burnley striker has been short of supply for most of the season, but just before the half hour mark, he combined with Sunderland's other bright spot this season. Signed on loan from Tottenham, Danny Rose had entrenched himself in the hearts and minds of those on Wearside long before his cross allowed Fletcher to flick the ball past Federici and notch his seventh goal of the season.
It was the highlight of what was another impressive display by Rose on a night when everything he did right was met by chants of his name. O'Neill has made no secret of his desire to keep the 22-year-old at the club long-term, a move that it is believed Rose would welcome. Withdrawn midway through the second half, he was met with a standing ovation and yet more choruses from the home crowd.
By this point Brian McDermott was cutting a rather disconsolate figure. At 2-0 down he chose to throw away his water bottle and furiously begin scribbling notes, but as Stephane Sessegnon rounded Federici for the third goal in stoppage time, McDermott could only stand and stare - his body language giving connotations of a man who is well aware that his side are falling deeper into the chasm.
After the game, like so many of his fellow managers, he chose to focus on the positives, sadly none of which were on the pitch.
"We created a few chances but we have to be more solid. Listen, where we've come from in the last three years and where we're now in this league - we're in a far healthier place than last season. So far we've come up short but all we've got to do is keep going," he said.
He would reiterate the club's 'healthy position' several times, something that will do little to raise the spirits of the 270-odd Reading fans that made the journey up.
Meanwhile for O'Neill, the buzzword was relief. The surprise inclusion of Fletcher, while seeming psychological, was in fact the result of a late training session, with O'Neill taking the opportunity to once again eulogise over his star man. "He came out this morning to do a bit of a loosener. I personally thought if he could see it till half-time or just into the second half he'd do great for us. He's been terrific for us, you just feel like he is likely to get you a goal," he said.
In what has undoubtedly been a difficult season for O'Neill, he chose to inject a dose of realism into his post-match discussion by saying: "I just feel that this season will be really tough for us, I accept that. I kind of thought that anyway at the start of the year and I didn't want people starting to get carried away because we had signed two players and a few on free transfers."
Of course he couldn't remain that way for long, ending the discussion with a joke after he struggled to remember which day he had given his pre-match conference - his side's victory suggesting more of the plight Reading are in than a resurgence amongst the Black Cats.