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From The Durham Times: O'Neill's Sunderland Refreshingly Atypical

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06:  General views of the Stadium of Light on December 6, 2011 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: General views of the Stadium of Light on December 6, 2011 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Naturally, we are assuming here that you all raced out on Friday and purchased The Durham Times, utterly unable to wait a second longer than you have to before you can read our regular Sunderland AFC column. If that wasn't the case, well we forgive, but only because we are frankly desperate.

For future reference, however, you can pick up a copy from your local newsagents for the sum of just 30p. Or head to this link (clicky).

Where once Roker Report was resplendent in opinion from me that no one could ever remember actually asking for, lately there hasn't been a huge amount of opportunity for that for one reason or another. So I was delighted when I realised it was my turn to do this feature. Anyway, you know the procedure... have a read, tell me I am wrong on all counts, and carry on your life happy in the knowledge you still know considerably more than I do.

Winning a game from a goal down? Check. Going away to a promoted team and asserting your class? Check. Humbling a top side at the Stadium of Light in front of the Sky TV cameras? Check. Winning back to back Premier League games? Check. It really hasn't taken Martin O'Neill long to prove he is about as atypically Sunderland as you can get, has it.

Last week he added another one to the list. 'Typical Sunderland' would have undoubtedly been to accommodate ITV's clear hunger to witness an FA Cup shock at London Road. But all the TV cameras picked up was clear evidence that O'Neill is rewriting the Sunderland rule-book. The Black Cats swept aside their lower division hosts with a kind of ruthless efficiency and professionalism fans have simply never been afforded the opportunity of associating with the club.

There was little flash about the performance at Peterborough, it must be said. After failing to name a real recognised striker on the team sheet – something that Steve Bruce was heavily criticised for after going out of the league cup at Brighton in August – it must be said that it took the team a little time to feel their way into the game.

For the Premier League team, however, these kinds of occasions are as much about mentality as they are ability. Dampening the spirits of the excited crowd and stifling their opponents sufficiently to cause their heads to drop was what was needed in the opening stages, and that was precisely what happened.

With Sunderland's name safely tucked away in the hat for a fourth round draw which produced a home tie with Middlesborough, attention at the Stadium of Light must have surely turned to the January transfer window. It has all been eerily quiet on that front on Wearside so far, something which would have been incomprehensible a month or so ago.

But such has been the impact of O'Neill that the same squad that struggled so desperately under Bruce this season has felt fresh and revitalised over the course of a few short weeks. Lee Cattermole is unquestionably playing the best football of his Sunderland career. The emergence of James McClean has given the squad some much needed attacking balance and energy. Matt Kilgallon has come in from the cold and not put a foot wrong, and Craig Gardner is starting to prove his worth too. With Craig Gordon, Michael Turner, Connor Wickham, and Frazier Campbell due to return within weeks too, the squad could well have a very different look to it come February even without a single new arrival.

This weekend, Sunderland travel to the scene of last season's most memorable day – Stamford Bridge. Although Chelsea are not the force they once were, it goes without saying that they will provide a stern test of the Wearsiders' new-found resolve.

O'Neill, however, may just be quietly confident of causing another upset. His tried and tested method of utilizing a compact and deep defence aligned with blisteringly quick counter-attacking could be tailor-made for the task in West London. Andre Vilas-Boas' insistence of maintaining a high defensive line whist in possession, marshalled by the ageing John Terry, will certainly not have gone unnoticed to the Sunderland manager.

Ultimately, that Sunderland head to somewhere like Chelsea in such fine spirits and genuinely hopeful of getting a result is the greatest testament to Martin O'Neill's impact at the club. To give Bruce his due, he gave us some gallant displays against the top sides in his time here, but they tended to be surprise. I struggle to remember approaching the games with anything resembling real expectation.

Whatever the outcome at Stamford Bridge, it seems all bets are off and Mr O'Neill intends to ensure we redefine what 'typical Sunderland' means to us. He appears to like winning too much to play up to our current understanding of the term. I can't see his plan meeting much resistance, either.

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