From The Durham Times: Quality Coaching The Platform For O'Neill Magic

Steve Walford (right) has long been a crucial element in Martin O'Neill's successes.

Hello everyone. It's Sunday, so it must be about time for our latest column for The Durham Times. Each and every week we provide our views for the local newspaper, and you can not only read them on their own site, but you can here. Just be warned that this is delayed, and slightly out of date.

You can of course correct that by buying the paper itself from any newsagents worth it's salt for the sum of 30p, or head on over to the Durham Times' website on a Friday and read our views there - http://www.durhamtimes.co.uk/

Or alternatively just wait and it will make it's way here eventually. The choice is yours, but we recommend buying the paper and supporting the local press.

This week, we looked at an unsung hero of the O'Neill era...

Last month my Roker Report colleague, Simon Walsh, insisted that for all Martin O'Neill, James McClean, and Stephane Sessegnon may have grabbed the headlines, there have been considerably more heroes responsible for the Sunderland revival than that meager yet magnificent band of merry men.

For me, however, there has been one man's contribution in all this that has gone pretty much totally unrecognised. One genuinely unsung hero - Steve Walford.

It can often be difficult to really judge the influence of a coach or assistant manager. By their very nature they tend to shun the spotlight and rightly so.

But while Steve Bruce's teams often resembled a bunch of strangers who just so happened to attend the same gym during the week, intense and professional training ground preparation has been an obvious cornerstone of the early success under his successor.

Although perhaps not its most eye-catching element, the real hallmark of the new-look Sunderland is what they do without the ball. Players getting into a defensive shape quickly having lost possession and, once in position, being disciplined enough to filter the opposition into areas in which they can be pressed in numbers and crowded out has become a familiar sight to Sunderland fans of late, and it all stems from quality coaching.

As a result, the team have developed a genuine tenacious streak making them tough to break down and often able to dishearten opposition who grow tired of seeing their efforts crash against a red and white wall stubbornly protecting its penalty area. When combined with the obvious belief and desire that O'Neill has managed to instil in the players, it isn't difficult to understand why it has proven such a potent formula.

The stattos amongst you will, I am sure, be happy to point out that there was never really a defensive problem to actually solve under Steve Bruce. Indeed, on the day that Bruce was sacked only four clubs in the whole of the division boasted a better defensive record than Sunderland and three who had kept more clean sheets.

The goals that were conceded under Bruce, however, tended to be at crucial times when the opposition were enjoying a good spell in a game, who could then retreat to defensive positions knowing the shot-shy Black Cats would be unlikely to find a way back into the game.

But Sunderland are now infinitely better drilled defensively and it has equipped them to withstand the opposition periods of pressure which are inevitable at this level, increasing the chances of the goals they manage to score themselves being match-winners rather than game-savers or mere consolations.

For a brief time last week against Arsenal that looked like being the case again. O'Neill's men kept the scores level and when James McClean pounced on a stumble from Per Mertesacker to fire home the opening goal, the signs were good that it would the decisive one. It wasn't to be, though, and Sunderland can feel unfortunate to have lost the game.

Following their brief jaunt over to Milan to get a Champions League hammering, the Gunners return to The Stadium of Light this weekend and Sunderland will be fancying their chances of heaping yet more misery upon the Londoners. Whilst league points are the club's bread and butter, there is simply no question that Sunderland will see FA Cup progression as the real star prize on offer from the Arsenal double-header.

Victory would put Sunderland a game away from Wembley and, for the first time in years, there seems some genuine hunger for the competition within the club itself. It won't be easy against such quality opposition, especially now they have wounded pride, but there is every chance of success - especially with an uninterrupted week under Walford's watchful training ground gaze with which to prepare.

MICHAEL GRAHAM

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