From The Durham Times: O'Neill's Quest For Transformation Off And On Pitch

Stu Forster

Each and every week we provide our views to The Durham Times, one of our favourite local newspapers. You can pick up a copy every Friday for just 50p rather than read this out of date version if you want. The decision is yours. Do that next week anyway.

As Martin O'Neill fielded questions in his first week in charge at Sunderland, he revealed his ambition for his new side. In such situations, sound bites often tell of a Cup win or establishing the club, but the former Aston Villa was far more specific, indicating what his three contracted years would detail.

"I always come back to the way Barcelona play. It's a long way in the future, but you'd love to keep that in the back of your mind and think you could eventually have a team that could come out and play like that."

Acutely aware that his words could bring as much retrospective ridicule as praise, O'Neill also suggested that the team he inherited lacked the sufficient pace to become a red-and-white adaptation of his counter-attacking team at Aston Villa. Yet, in terms of design rather than fortune, it is how Sunderland thrived as O'Neill steered the club away from the relegation zone. Mindful of his ambition, however, O'Neill identified and secured personnel he believed would progress his side closer to his wish, but those that looked comfortable as opportunists have proven timid as influencers.

O'Neill prioritising his summer budget has not been an issue as January approaches; Sunderland would be hapless without Steven Fletcher's goals and Adam Johnson is gradually finding his form. That Johnson's contributions in the last four games see him leading the assists and key passes columns highlights the expectancy placed on his shoulders and to some extent justifies it, but also offers the realisation that some of his colleagues may not see what O'Neill ultimately has in store for Sunderland. Another summer recruit, borrowed left-back Danny Rose, has provided a spark when joining attacks and can hopefully be added to the squad permanently.

Fletcher is proving to be quite the cultured finisher and defensive reinforcement at set pieces, but in a system focussed around unlocking defences rather than pick-pocketing them on the break, Fletcher is spotlighted for all the wrong reasons - only six outfield players in the entire league have a worse pass success rate than the Scotsman. Whilst there have been cases where Fletcher's intention to get the ball forward has curtailed moves, Sunderland are gear grinding due to a lack of incision.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle O'Neill has to overcome is how the next step in the grand plan affects his charges mentally. The midfield, tasked with becoming more grace than grit, regularly contains Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner who, whilst League Cup winners, were relegated at Birmingham City. David Vaughan lies in reserve and suffered the same fate with Blackpool. Jack Colback has been more sideways than slide-rule to the extent that a lack of conviction in possession has seen him out of the starting line-up in the last two games. Fletcher is the go-to man but has two footballing faux-pas to his name. All of which are housed at a ground that has seen two record-breaking exits from the Premier League and almost annual slumps that are difficult to arrest. Even uber-winner Roy Keane found it all too much.

Just over a year on and the task that lies before O'Neill remains no simpler. A second transfer window in which the manager has had time to assess his targets gives O'Neill further chance to tailor the squad to his vision. As Sunderland limp towards the New Year seemingly hamstrung by what is now encouraged of them, O'Neill has targeted a midfield addition - arguably a need even before Cattermole's injury. Transforming the way Sunderland play is one thing, but changing the mentality may be his biggest achievement yet.

KARL JONES

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