From The Durham Times: We're Not On Our Jollies Just Yet

Don't write off Wickham yet.

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Here's our latest offering, so enjoy it...

It may sound like a cliché, but it seems that Sunderland's player's heads really were already on the beach last weekend against Wolves. Although the vast majority of performances under Martin O'Neill have been superb, with the occasional shocker thrown in - yes West Brom and Blackburn, I'm looking at you - the weekend's game was one that was arguably the most disappointing.

Every team has an off day, and with the afore-mentioned defeats, we had the added excuse of being away from home. Saturday's home tie against a Wolves team that were shipping goals for fun (Saturday was their first clean sheet in 31 matches) and not picking up any points was borderline depressing for fans of the Black Cats.

It was a toothless performance against a team that had made a habit recently of conceding at least three goals per game, although it may have confirmed to Martin O'Neill that his work in progress at the Stadium of Light is still very much that. With James McClean's influence nullified by Wolves marking that verged on obsessive, the team struggled to create chances, despite the usual hard work and flair that Stephane Sessegnon provided.

Despite the obvious set back though, we shouldn't forget the strides that we've taken under O'Neill, and there is no better team to compare ourselves to than Saturday's opposition when doing so. Since the Midlands club beat Sunderland in the game after Steve Bruce's departure, we have romped up the Premier League, while Wolves will almost certainly be relegated.

Looking ahead to this coming Saturday and a game away at Aston Villa, a similar performance just can't be tolerated. Ever since the whole Darren Bent ordeal, the Villians (with their fitting nickname) have become the team that most Sunderland fans look forward to getting one over on, and Martin O'Neill's past will only add to this, you would imagine. With the Midlands side still not safe from relegation, it would be fitting if Sunderland were the team that left Darren Bent's "big club" teetering on the edge of survival with the season's close merely a few games away.

Ironically, Bent's presence in the Villa team highlights arguably the biggest problem that Martin O'Neill faces in the long term, as we are still yet to fully replace him in the team. Admittedly, since Christmas, it hasn't seemed too much of an issue thanks to the fine form of Nicklas Bendtner, but with the great Dane seemingly moving on to pastures new in the summer, and the pound signs in Asamoah Gyan's eyes still shining brightly, a centre forward is surely the first thing on Sunderland's shopping list once the window, urm, slams open.

Unfortunately, Fraizer Campbell's form has tailed off since his explosive return to the first team, and, perhaps much more worryingly, O'Neill seems as reluctant to play £8m summer signing Connor Wickham as Steve Bruce was. Thankfully, in the case of the youngster, he is still very much that, and we would be foolish to write him off at this early stage of his career. That doesn't change the fact that we need an established forward to fill the Bendtner/Gyan/Bent/Jones-sized hole in our front line though, and the January transfer window will certainly make interesting viewing.

On paper, the weekend's game with Aston Villa is one that we should be winning, but the game isn't played on paper, and Wolves proved last week how form can count for very little on any given weekend.

I would like to pretend to be a big enough man to say that I wouldn't be delighted to see Villa relegated, solely for the opportunity to laugh at Darren Bent and his leaving us to move to a team where he would be receiving better service, one which would also finish about the Black Cats thanks to its apparent size.

If we come out of the blocks at Villa Park and play like we know we can, then we will almost certainly come away with the three points against the men in claret and blue, but if the players spend another 90 minutes dreaming about their summer holidays in the Caribbean, then we could well be in trouble. We've done extremely well to make it as high as 9th in the league, and with 8th still a viable target, we need the players to concentrate for a few more matches before those well-deserved rests.

Let's hope that, on Saturday, the Martin O'Neill team that we've quickly grown to know and love turns up at Villa Park.

DAN WILLIAMS

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