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From the Durham Times: Transformation On Wearside As The 'O'Neill Factor' Kicks In

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Hi, Chris Weatherspoon here. Last time I was entrusted with writing for our weekly Durham Times piece, I preached patience and hope, ahead of a very winnable home tie against Wigan Athletic.

So, naturally, we lost. A few days later, Steve Bruce was gone, and in his stead came Martin O'Neill. Now, try as I might not to jinx anything, I simply couldn't help but be positive once more.

This article of course appeared first in The Durham Times yesterday, where we have a column every week. Be sure to pick up a copy from your local newsagents for the sum of just 30p. Or head to this link (clicky) and while away your Friday. Or simply wait until we post it here the day after. It's up to you.

Now the plugs are over, it's back to business...

A little over a month ago, Sunderland were in freefall. A 1-2 home defeat to Wigan Athletic rounded off a miserable eleven months at the Stadium of Light and, despite this author's appeals for calm and patience prior to that debacle against the Latics, Steve Bruce's time at the helm was undoubtedly up.

Fast forward to 2012 and it is an altogether different scenario. Bruce's fairly amicable departure could not have contrasted more with the arrival of Martin O'Neill. Long touted as Sunderland boss, the Ulsterman rode into Wearside on a wave of goodwill and hope from Black Cats fans.

The transformation since his arrival has been astonishing. Six games. Four victories. One draw. One defeat. That the sole defeat was a close 0-1 against Tottenham Hotspur, the side playing arguably the best football in the league right now, is testament to the improvement of this Sunderland side over the past five weeks.

Last-gasp wins against Blackburn Rovers, QPR and Manchester City have delighted fans and bemused onlookers who saw Sunderland as a dropping stone under the final weeks of Bruce, while Tuesday evening's 4-1 revenge thumping of Wigan propelled the Black Cats to the top of the Premier League form table.

Remarkably, they currently top the Premier League injury table too. Eleven players inhabit the Academy of Light's physio room on a daily basis - with most of them likely to be regular starters when fit.

Far from using this as an excuse, as Bruce and many fans were previously inclined to do, the new manager and his backroom team have instead dismissed any bad luck that has come their way, and simply got on with it.

Employed a month prior to the transfer window opening, many expected O'Neill to take his opening few weeks to assess the squad and its inevitable weaknesses, trundle through a couple of games, hopefully picking up a respectable amount of points, before imposing his own players and ideas on the club come January.

On the contrary, the Irishman has instead sought to apply his undoubted man-management skills from the offset, and looked to blend the current squad through a mix of confidence-building and sheer pragmatism.

With less than half an hour gone against Manchester City, central defender Wes Brown hobbled off injured, leaving an already depleted back line in dire straits. On came Matthew Kilgallon, a man many Sunderland fans had forgotten even still played for their club.

Flanking Kilgallon and his central partner, John O'Shea, were two midfielders deployed at full-back in the shape of Craig Gardner and Jack Colback. A recipe for disaster, one might think.

Yet, not once did any of them look out of place. O'Neill, a skilled tactician, simply played to their strengths. He realised Gardner and Colback's abilities as fairly tough-tackling midfielders meant they were a good fit for the full-back role and, by drilling a defensive ethos into the two wingers in front of them, he ensured there was always a willing recipient of a pass once his side arrested the ball from the opposition.

When at Aston Villa, it was perhaps the use of his wingers that O'Neill was most famous for. The past two games suggest much the same could be seen at Sunderland. In both the City and Wigan games, the Black Cats were content to soak up pressure up to their eighteen-yard-line, before seizing the ball and springing forward with quick counter-attacks down the wings. The most obvious beneficiary of this new tactic has been the previously unknown James McClean - who capped a fine performance on Tuesday evening with his first goal in red and white stripes.

Captain Lee Cattermole, too, has been a prominent figure in this transformation. Where, in the latter days of the Bruce era, Cattermole's time seemed all but up on Wearside, now he is enjoying his best form since coming to the club; indeed, 'Catts' recently thanked O'Neill for saving his Sunderland career.

There has been no sweeping change here, just a simplicity in the manager's approach. The captain has been told to be less fitful in his play and less vicious in his tackling. He has been positioned slightly deeper, as a more effective cover for the back four, and told to be more patient and seek to nick the ball only instead of bludgeoning the man behind it too. Thankfully, for both Cattermole and Sunderland, the new approach is playing dividends.

The O'Neill Factor has not been limited to tactical tweaks however - far from it. Just as his own mentor, the late Brian Clough, relied immeasurably upon managing each player individually, so does the Irishman.

When McClean came off against Wigan, O'Neill made sure he and the rest of his staff swamped the youngster, patting him on the back and offering compliments on his performance. When that game ended, the manager made a concerted effort to rush onto the field to tend to and congratulate the limping Jack Colback, while the Manchester City game saw similar efforts extended to the aforementioned captain.

As a result, Sunderland now have a team willing to run through brick walls for their manager. Seb Larsson, bedridden the day before the New Years' Day encounter with City, insisted on playing. Breaking from the box to start off the move that would end with Ji Dong-Won's stunning winner, Larsson buckled to the ground immediately after passing the ball on, exhausted from his own individual contribution.

This was a perfect example of the change that has been ignited under Martin O'Neill. Where despair festered a short while ago, there is now hope in abundance.

That famous magic carpet just started flying again.

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