Captain's Blog: O'Neill Class Ensures Panic-Free January On Wearside

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Ah January. Traditionally a magical time of the year for Sunderland fans. With the winter 'blip' fast approaching over the horizon, it is a time to look forward with panic and wonder what ill-advised Sulley Muntari or Benjani shaped aberration the scatter-gun transfer policy can really rub salt into the wounds the impending months of utter misery and dejection will almost certainly bring.

At least, that is what we used to have to look forward too. We used to have losing games on a weekly basis, meekly surrendering to lower league opposition in the cup, writing off our chances of winning a game from a losing position, and scoffing at a mere suggestion of winning back to back Premier League games too. Martin O'Neill seems to be re-writing the rules, and doing it with a ruthless efficiency.

Perhaps the biggest joy so far of O'Neill's brief tenure, apart from winning games, of course, has been that great 'anything can happen' feeling. Life under Bruce had become predictable and tedious to a near-excruciating degree. We knew that the second the transfer window opened, whichever one it happened to be, we were in for a difficult time as Bruce gorged himself on his addiction to wheeling and dealing without any real thought to the sustainability of it all. We knew the moment we were awarded a corner there was more chance of the opposition scoring than there was of us doing so. We knew that with mere minutes left in a game that was slipping away, Ahmed Elmohamady's introduction was imminent. In fact, I remain convinced to this day that our regular match-reporter Simon Walsh wrote half of them before a ball was even kicked during 2011.

But from the moment Martin O'Neill turned to James McClean against Blackburn, or when he could be seen urging Sunderland forward in numbers in the dying seconds against Manchester City rather than to the corners, it has been clear that for all the methodology in his management, there is also a strong reliance on instinct too. That makes things unpredictable. That makes things interesting.

It won't always be like this, of course. But for now it is leaving us all largely scratching our heads over what exactly January has in store.

Little over a month ago, I suspect we'd all largely be in agreement that some pretty substantial squad surgery was required should we have aspirations of avoiding involvement in the relegation battle. The squad was looking unbalanced and lacking any discernible goal treat. A new forward would still be welcomed by most, I suspect, but it no longer looks terminal.

Through Bruce's eye for a player and O'Neill's courage to give him an opportunity, a diamond has been unearthed in James McClean and the persistent left-sided problem solved in an instant. Many of us were calling for some defensive reinforcement to be drafted in, but the all-but-forgotten Matthew Kilgallon has since proven himself a dependable option upon which to call. The emergence of Lee Cattermole as the midfield general and driving leader we always hoped he could be has added considerable resolve to a midfield that was starting to look a real soft touch.

When you add those players to the likes of Michael Turner, Craig Gordon, Connor Wickham, and Fraizer Campbell who are on the verge of making their returns to first team contention following various injuries, the squad starts to take on a very different look to that which we have been used to for the majority of this season before the cheque-book has even been opened.

No one is saying here that everything is suddenly rosy and Ellis Short can pop his feet up and marvel and some kind of archetypal ideal squad. It certainly isn't that. The lack of real cutting edge up front and pace throughout the team is still very much apparent and will surely be high on O'Neill's list of things to address.

The difference is that those weaknesses no longer cripple the squad as the did under his predecessor. Where Bruce procrastinated, O'Neill is pragmatic. A lack of a top striker, to Bruce, meant a lack of goals. To O'Neill it means a need to get more men in the box and place greater emphasis on delivery. To Bruce, a lack of an abundance of pace in the side this season meant an inherent need to take greater risks when in possession. To O'Neill it attaches greater importance to maintaining shape and solidity when not in possession. Where the weaknesses of Bruce's team defined it, the strengths of O'Neill's define his.

So while an addition or two this month wouldn't be unwelcome, I for one certainly won't be biting my finger nails and pulling my hair out as I was as the clock ticked down on August with still no senior striker replacement for Darren Bent in place. It will no longer be a disaster if nothing materialises in the transfer market this month, and that would have been unthinkable a few short weeks ago. Ultimately, the club have already made the biggest and most telling signing they will this season - and he wears number 31.

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