5. We're Getting Things Right OFF The Pitch
Unsurprisingly, given our mediocre season so far, the main cause for optimism can be found in the boardroom. Sunderland appear to be getting things right off the pitch, if not on it. Assuming we stay in the Premier League, there is no better time to be there with the new bumper television deal heading the way of 20 lucky clubs. The financial landscape of the league is about to change and with Ellis Short at the helm, Sunderland are in safe hands; he was after all the man who came up with the new regulations. Self-sufficiency is the aim and those with the power behind the scenes at Sunderland are making all of the right noises about reducing the dependency on Short's personal fortune. With investment in Africa, link ups with other clubs around the globe and the summer concerts all at the fore, the club has never been healthier.
4. Signing Policy
As things move in the right direction off the pitch, our signing policy is likely to follow suit. Gone are the heady days of Roy Keane spending sprees, which are simply unsustainable. While O'Neill has been given freedom to sign big money recruits Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson, he has also recruited Alfred N'Diaye. Who said our manager only signs British based players? N'Diaye exemplifies the type of signing Sunderland need to make going forward; young, relatively cheap and with bags of potential. Given the links the club are developing abroad, we can expect more players of this ilk allied with experienced, big money recruits to add proven quality. Getting this balance right is essential and the club is showing every sign it is.
3. O'Neill Has Only Been Here 3 Windows
Speaking of transfers, it must not be forgotten that O'Neill has only had three windows to begin shaping his squad and has yet to complete a full season in charge of the club. Patience might not sound like a reason NOT to worry, but undoing Steve Bruce's final transfer window at the club is going to take time. A number of players are out of contract this summer, including Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon and with the likes of David Meyler and Fraizer Campbell moved on in January, the foundations are being laid for a summer of activity in the transfer market. The squad might look thin now, but with wages cleared and space made, new recruits will be made. Next season is the time to judge O'Neill, when he has assembled something resembling his team. He has the managerial pedigree to take us forward but there is only so much he can do with the array of mediocrity at his disposal.
2. Sessegnon Is Recapturing His Best Form
One player who is certainly not mediocre - though he is at times frustrating - is Stephane Sessegnon. It's becoming a joy to watch him once again. O'Neill's arrival in 2011 was the catalyst for the undeniably talented Benin international to consistently produce the kind of superb performances that had eluded him under Steve Bruce's tutelage. After a stuttering start this season, O'Neill has tweaked the shape of the team and altered Sessegnon's position, once again sparking him into life. Considering he is arguably our most naturally gifted player, the team needs him firing. Now that he is, there is something for the fans to get excited about. Here's hoping he can bring the best out of Johnson - there have been signs of a linkup between the two - and his creativity can help Steven Fletcher start finding the net once again. If nothing else, he is a cause for optimism.
1. Simon Mignolet
Having said all of that about Sessegnon, his performances are topped by those of our Belgian ‘keeper. Mignolet has been, without question in my opinion, amongst the top three goalkeepers in the Premier League. As much as I rated Craig Gordon, he never produced performances as consistently faultless as Mignolet has this season. If he had a weakness to his game, it was his distribution. The improvement to this side of his game has been huge, exemplified by his performance at Fulham where both his kicking and throwing were at times brilliant. Contrast his distribution with Mark Schwarzer's - a goalkeeper with a wealth of top flight experience - and it highlights just how far Mignolet has progressed. He gets everything else right; his shot stopping is fantastic, he commands his box well and is one of the finest I've seen in any shirt when it comes to one on ones. The way he storms out is reminiscent of Schmeichel and there is no higher praise than that. All that's left to say is, PLEASE Simon, delight everyone on Wearside and sign a new contract.