From The Durham Times: City Draw Shows Our Increasing Relevance

Martin O'Neill: Won't finish last in the battle for relevance.

Yup, it's a bank holiday weekend but for us that means there's just a boat load of football to taking in, and we're still powering through as normal, so with it being Sunday, it's time we gave you our latest column for The Durham Times.

We've been writing for one of the North East's finest for some time now, taking it in turn among the writers here to do a piece on a weekly basis. Now then, you could have got this in the actual physical paper on Friday, and indeed every Friday, for the low-low price of just 50p. Go buy it and support the local press! Failing that head to their website which is - http://www.durhamtimes.co.uk/ - and read our musing there.

If you're just too damn lazy, then get yourself here on Sunday, and we'll post a delayed version. Some of it may not make total sense, but that's the price you pay. Either way though, do enjoy it...

It's all about relevance in football nowadays. Barely a week goes by without someone bemoaning the agenda of SKY television, or BBC's Match of the Day, dismayed at the media's lack of attention on so-called "lesser clubs."

Like it or loathe it, the common refrain is simply that the media only serves to showcase those whom it sees as part of the big picture; those who appeal to a wider audience; those who are relevant.

Joey Barton, prior to his self-imposed and much celebrated Twitter exile, could be seen pointing to his millions of followers waxing lyrical regularly about his "relevance" in the modern game.

Though one wag rightfully pointed out that, going on Twitter followers alone, Barton would thus be less relevant than Jedward, it was hard not to think that the QPR midfielder's cocksure nature was one which mirrored football's priorities - if you're not making waves, be they positive or negative, you're not really doing much in football.

For too long now, Sunderland have been an irrelevance in English football. Save for a few bright years at the turn of the century, the Wearsiders have been mired in mediocrity for as long as many can remember.

Where neighbours Newcastle have been a favourite of television viewers over the past two decades - albeit, often for their entertaining failures - the Black Cats have struggled for recognition, quietly going about their business with few on the outside world taking notice.

Even when they managed new levels of incompetence - nineteen points in 2003, just fifteen in 2006 - Sunderland were all too often disregarded. Relegation in those years had been so long coming, so pathetic, the nation couldn't even bring itself to mock the red and whites. They remained, in every sense of the word, irrelevant.

That, however, is now changing. Saturday's draw at Manchester City, courtesy of the concession of two late goals, saw Martin O'Neill's side travel home feeling dejected at a missed opportunity of three points. Yet this dejection was a sign of Sunderland's recent rise.

Prior to last weekend, Roberto Mancini's City hadn't dropped a single point at home in twenty league games. Their home form had been integral to their Premier League title hopes - indeed, in the past months, it has been the only thing keeping their ambitions alive.

Now, thanks to a Sunderland side which turned up with no intention of respecting the form book, those title hopes are in tatters. Come Monday morning, Mancini's men could easily find themselves eight points behind city rivals United - and the Italian supremo can put much of this down to the men from Wearside.

Of course, it is nonsense to blame City's slump entirely on one, or even two, games against the Black Cats. Their problems run much deeper than that.

But it is certain that, as the clock came close to striking five on the first afternoon of the year, City's mental state was dealt a comprehensive blow. With the kitchen sink thrown and the game all but dead, Sunderland were meant to wander to the corner and play out the end of a plucky 0-0 draw, and the sky blue juggernaut could rumble on slightly bruised, but scarcely battered.

Instead, Ji Dong-Won rounded Joe Hart and the side that had won 6-1 at Old Trafford just over two months earlier was left searching for its resolve. In recent months they have found it sparingly - including in that late comeback last weekend - but they have never looked the same side as the one that swept all before it pre-Christmas.

With that draw on Saturday, the win in January and an enthralling cup run, Martin O'Neill is restoring Sunderland's relevance in English football. Steve Bruce's wins against the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea offered hints of the club once more being taken seriously on a wider level, but such early promise frittered out in his final disastrous eleven months in charge.

The introduction of O'Neill has seen the rest of football sit up and take notice. No longer is this a side against whom big clubs can simply expect a result; no longer will mediocrity suffice; no longer shall Sunderland be a mere footnote in footballing history.

The loss to Everton last week ended Sunderland's trophy aspirations this season, and a place in Europe looks well beyond their reach now. Yet, the second half of this season has seen them emerge as a truly intriguing side, one which is much less likely to be disregarded so easily in the future.

In the battle for relevance in football, Martin O'Neill is ensuring Sunderland don't go down without a fight.

CHRIS WEATHERSPOON

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