Captain's Blog: Great To Feel Included Again

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'New dawn' is a weary and over-used cliché at Sunderland. If it was a carpet you'd chuck it out as being so abused and worn out it was no longer fit for purpose. It is true we have had far too many. A full Alaskan winter of them, it seems. True each one has been slowly getting brighter than the last but we are yet to see a glorious new day break for our football club. Is this the one? As you were - only time will tell.

When Martin O'Neill was introduced to the media on Tuesday what followed was a predictably captivating charm offensive on the senses. With his demure demeanour and careful use of understated flattery, all delivered in his customary dulcet Irish tones, it was a performance that most master politicians lie awake at night dreaming about delivering. Even after cutting through the usual amount of spin and soundbite that can overpower and, at times, drown such occasions, one thing was abundantly clear – in just one press conference Martin O'Neill had managed to outwardly embrace Sunderland AFC and immerse himself in it in a way that his predecessor never quite managed to portray, and it was nothing to do with roots and boyhood allegiances.

I don't mean that necessarily as a criticism of Steve Bruce. Every manager has their own ways and means and must, like the rest of us, just be themselves. But every time Bruce spoke he was seemingly on a mission to try and detach the players from the crowd. Whilst he famously and persistently, almost belligerently in fact, lamented the expectation of the Stadium of Light crowd as a obstacle to success, O'Neill spoke of actively igniting and embracing them:

“I genuinely don't have a problem with expectation. I think the football club should have a fair ambition. That's what I'm going to try to achieve if it's all possible. I am here to reignite the passion."

For Sunderland fans, beleaguered and battered to submission from constantly having our passion and ambitions for our club held up as a stick with which to beat us, that was music to the ears. What was more, O'Neill outlined the passions of the supporters and the 'energy' in provides as key elements in his plans to revitalise the club.

“I think there is an energy about this club and very obviously a passion. I would consider it a major part of my job to reignite that passion. It's so exciting, I can hardly tell you. They turn up in great numbers and I just want to be part of it. You know there's a community, that you're in it. I always felt like that at Celtic and I get that feeling here. I'm sure it's here in abundance and I want to feel it."

With that, O'Neill singularly demonstrated that he is in possession of the one piece of knowledge common to all Sunderland managers who deliver a modicum of success – he knows what Sunderland is. Sunderland is the mob. Ignite it in common purpose and it will carry you to greater achievements than the sum of its parts warrant, but fragment it and divide it and its strength will wane to the point whereby it can no longer even punch its own weight. Peter Reid knew it. That was obvious from the first minute of his reign when Craig Russell won that memorable game against Sheffield United with a last minute goal that I still maintain to this day was sucked into the net by the Fulwell End. Knowing it doesn't guarantee a successful tenure, but it gives you a hell of a chance.

After enduring the year that Sunderland fans have, words will only take O'Neill so far, though, and he knows it. Sunderland fans are some of the world's great optimists but are, in my opinion, still waiting for someone to teach them how to trust again following the shameful neglect and complacency that saw the club's calamitous implosion at the end of the Reid era. Many a heart remains broken, even to this day, and the club have still never quite managed to repair them. As is the case whenever something breaks, though, it is often just a case of finding the right man to put it right, and O'Neill appears to have all the tools.

There was perhaps no better way for O'Neill to start his press-conference with a question. 'What do you mean by that?', he growled at David Craig in response to fairly innocent question. Because to succeed here he is going to have to challenge a great many things, starting with the rhetoric that Bruce fed to his players that the crowd are against them and a hindrance to be ignored wherever possible. Perhaps it would also be fair to say that another important and necessary challenge ahead of O'Neill is to persuade the fans to bury old grudges with unpopular players and offer everyone an unconditional clean slate, or at least be open-minded to the possibility. This fresh impetus of unity will only last as long as the whole club commit to embracing it.

Bruce arrived at Sunderland believing he was becoming the manager of a football team, entirely isolated from the supporters. 'Play the match, not the occasion' was his regular pre-derby sermon. But to Sunderland fans, every game is an occasion and we make no apologies for that. O'Neill, you feel, buys into that principle, and perhaps even shares it. It's a brilliant start. You get the sense he has come here to be the manager of a football club, inclusive of the fans. What a feeling it is to once again feel included.

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