From The Durham Times: Fantastic Friday Shows Cats Intent

The signing of Adam Johnson is a real sign of intent from Martin O'Neill, or so we wrote this week for the Durham Times.

As some of you are no doubt aware by now, we also provide our views to leading local newspaper The Durham Times on all things Sunderland on a weekly basis. On a Sunday, we bring it to you.

You can pick up The Durham Times from any newsagents or supermarket worth it's salt, or alternatively head to their website - www.durhamtimes.co.uk - or you can find them on Twitter @DTSport for all the latest sporting news and articles from around the region.

The paper comes out on a Friday, and we bring you this on a Sunday. If it seems somewhat out of date then you can just go ahead and start buying the paper. In fact, we suggest you do that rather than read this.

If you're still here after all that, why not check out our latest column for them, it's only a click away...

What a difference a week makes. What a difference a day makes.

Some seven days ago, Sunderland's season remained on tenterhooks. A summer of frustration had been somewhat assuaged by a promising opening day point away at Arsenal, but on the transfer front the situation remained worrying.

In Carlos Cuéllar and Louis Saha, Martin O'Neill had made two free transfers and nought more. Those two represented solid Premier League buys - indeed, Cuéllar was excellent at The Emirates - but they were not sufficient for the Wearsiders.

O'Neill's main target Steven Fletcher remained a Wolves man, with the Molineux outfit holding out for the highest possible fee. Elsewhere, no strengthening had taken place.

And then, like the old 'London Buses' metaphor, two new faces came along at once. In the process, they changed the entire mood at the club, and arguably transformed O'Neill's squad into one that can truly look to push strongly into the top ten this coming year.

First, it was that man Fletcher. The signing of Saha seemed to have strengthened Sunderland's position - the Black Cats still needed a striker, but now their need was not so dire that they could be held to ransom as they had been previously.

The Scotsman's £12m fee still had some baulking, but ultimately the overriding feeling when his face popped up on SAFC.com holding a red and white scarf was one of relief. After more than three months of dogged pursuit, O'Neill had his man. Fletcher, scorer of seven headed goals in the league last season and the second most clinical finisher of 'clear-cut chances' (as defined by the statistics behemoths, Opta), is the perfect fit for a side that will look to attack via the wings and get crosses into the box.

Then, within a few hours, the relief at that signing was transformed into sheer ecstasy at another. Adam Johnson, product of Middlesbrough academy, has long been a target of Sunderland's. Back in 2010 they looked to snare him away from the Teesiders, only to see their efforts gazumped when Manchester City's millions enticed him to Eastlands.

The Black Cats' most recent pursuit of the tricky winger was seen as likely to end in failure once more. With four other clubs in for Johnson, including Tottenham and Liverpool, it seemed unlikely that he'd trade European football for an uncertain experience on Wearside.

But, slowly, the vision of him in a Sunderland shirt became ever clearer. Five possible suitors became three - with the red and whites still in the mix. Then rumours emanated from Merseyside that Liverpool would be looking to sell before they bought, and from London that perhaps Spurs' interest was not quite so strong as first thought.

In the end, it was a personal touch that did it. Martin O'Neill's footballing education under Brian Clough is evident in many areas of his management, and here again the Ulsterman utilised the teachings of one of football's greatest to maximum effect.

Realising just what a coup this could be for Sunderland, O'Neill promptly visited Johnson at his home - twice. A famed tactic of Clough's, though the latter famously refused to leave the house of Dave McKay unless he signed for his Derby County side at once, it is an ever so simple manoeuvre but one that undoubtedly strikes a chord.
So it proved. Scarcely had the ink dried on Fletcher's contract, barely had the club photographers changed their film, than Johnson was putting pen to paper on a four-year deal and holding that scarf aloft. £10m was the rumoured fee - those baulking at the cost of Fletcher were instantly comforted.

Martin O'Neill has thus gone from spending not a penny at Sunderland to spending more than anyone else ever has in a single day. From being fearful of a lack of spending and a lack of strengthening, Sunderland fans now have two players with proven top level quality worth a combined £22m, and a fairly fearsome side going forward.

Johnson and Fletcher combined with Sessegnon and McClean is a front four that will worry many a side this year. Its first airing came on Tuesday evening against Morecambe, where the League Two side were dispensed of easily. McClean notched two goals, Johnson two assists. Sessegnon was bright enjoyed linking up with his new teammates. Fletcher's lack of match fitness was evident, but there were still enough sparks for optimism to remain undimmed - a superb knockdown for Jack Colback in the opening half was a prime example.

O'Neill can now travel to Swansea tomorrow in a much calmer mood. It has taken time, but finally he has his side set up exactly as he wants, with the correct personnel to match. The Swans will offer a stern test, having won both of their opening games without conceding a goal, but Sunderland too have yet to be beaten at the back this season - and now they have firepower up front.

In a summer where many have been frustrated, O'Neill and his team finally came up trumps last Friday. The signing of Fletcher was proof of the Irishman's resolve, as he displayed an unwillingness to give up and was eventually rewarded. The signing of Johnson then showed his and the club's pulling power - one of England's premier wingers now resides on Wearside.

If nothing else, last Friday showed that Sunderland are full of intent this coming season.

CHRIS WEATHERSPOON

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