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The SOL archives: The Martin O’Neill era begins

To celebrate 20 years of the Stadium of Light, Roker Report are looking at past games with programmes, highlights and match reports. Today we look at Martin O’Neill’s first game in charge of the Black Cats.

Martin O’Neill was ushered in as Sunderland’s new messiah in December 2011 and was tasked with guiding the club away from a relegation battle and into a safe mid-table position. Ellis Short looked at O’Neill’s record at Aston Villa and felt that a manager of his pedigree would be able to not only steady the Sunderland ship, but leave foundations that would last for years to come.

Having spoken with him over the last two days, I know he is brimming with enthusiasm and anticipation about the challenge of taking Sunderland forward and I believe he is the perfect choice to deliver the success we all desire.

Blackburn, third from bottom, travelled to the Stadium of Light looking for only their third win of the season. Likewise Sunderland were only one point ahead of their relegation rivals, having only won two games themselves up to this point. A run of five games without a win saw the club drop to the lower rungs of the league, desperately needing a victory in front of the Sky cameras on a grey Sunday afternoon.

Martin O’Neill

The new gaffer was greeted with rapturous applause on entering his dug-out prior to kick off for this game. The sense of hope was back for the first time since Roy Keane handed in his resignation three years ago.

O’Neill addressed the fans in his programme notes and was quick to note how proud he was at being manager of this great football club:

May I say at the outset what an honour and privilege it is to be appointed as the manager of Sunderland A.F.C.

The passion of our new manager was evident in his first set of programme notes.

Lee Cattermole

Our leader and stalwart of the midfield expressed his disappointment in his Captain column because he would miss the game, shockingly, for a suspension! Catts though was a Steve Bruce man, so perhaps at the time he was concerned for his position as captain. Though he expressed his gratitude to Bruce for bringing him to the club, the message from Catts was one about the future.

I’ll always be grateful to Steve Bruce for bringing me to the club and having belief in me. Clearly Martin O’Neill is a top manager whose record is outstanding. The success he had in doing so well at this level with Aston Villa and Leicester commands the utmost respect and of course he was tremendously successful in Scotland with Celtic too.

Catts was upset to be suspended for a crucial game

Kieran Richardson

Kieran Richardson was one of only four first team players to have been at the club during the Roy Keane era and O’Neill was the fourth Sunderland manager he would play for. Sunderland’s utility man was looking to find a regular position under Martin O’Neill.

I would like to play further up the field and score some goals but I will play wherever the manager wants me and wherever’s good for the team.

Rico was wanting to get involved in the attacking third. Though he would most of his Sunderland career filling in at left back

Jack Colback

Colback was a promising youngster in the 2011-12 who was getting his first proper run in the Sunderland first team. The midfielder was hoping that the new manager would continue to give him a chance:

What we have seen so far in the manager is somebody who is very determined and confident to come in and do a good job. His track-record is second to none and I’m sure the whole place will be very excited seeing him come in.

Jack Colback is a twat now. But back then he was a promising youngster with a bright future.

Ellis Short

Two weeks prior to this game, Ellis Short proclaimed that Steve Bruce was in no danger of losing his job. Well, a fortnight later we had a new manager and were precariously close to the bottom three. Short, though, had the backing of all Sunderland fans, and his popularity only grew with the appointment of Martin O’Neill, who seemed a perfect fit for the club.

After deciding that Martin was the ideal choice, I was initially worried that he may not want to come to Sunderland. This concern was allayed immediately upon meeting him and seeing his enthusiasm for this assignment first hand.

Short was desperate to get Martin in as manager. And his wish was granted.

The Game

Line ups

The Sunderland team that day
Blackburn line up

With all the talk of a new manager entering Sunderland it would be easy to forgive some fans for forgetting that we had an imminent and massive game to play. Blackburn Rovers rolled into town following a 4-2 home victory over Swansea the previous week, and certainly weren’t willing to let this debutante manager and his Sunderland team walk allover them.

Early in the first half, Simon Vuckevic - a football manager darling back in the day - headed in from a Blackburn free kick to send the army of all twelve or so Blackburn fans into uproarious celebration. From that point on, it became one way traffic.

Sunderland enjoyed 70% possession for the rest of the game, camped deep in Blackburn’s half. Chris Samba was doing his best to head every ball away and tackle every Sunderland player. Unfortunately for Samba, he could not stop a David Vaughan screamer from 25 yards. Vaughan had surely rescued a point for Sunderland with only 5 minute left of regulation time.

But wait! With Sunderland's fifteenth and final shot of the game, Sebastian Larsson curled in a masterful free kick over the wall and past Paul Robinson's right hand. The Stadium of Light was sent into delirious overdrive. 2-1 to the lads. A victory as sweet as any. The MON era had begun with two bangs.

Post game

Martin O’Neill

I'm just ecstatic, it was a surreal experience, really surreal. It's been a great day. If the fans feel half as good as I do, it will be great for them.

James McClean was brilliant when we beat Manchester United 6-3 in the reserves last week.

We all needed a lift and he gave us one. He wants to get at players, he's so positive. The crowd took to him straightaway.

I like him (David Vaughan), he doesn't say much, he's very quiet but Vaughan's a lovely player. He can control the ball. The goal was fantastic; he's brilliant.

We had loads of possession. Overall I thought we did terrifically. I thought that, at some stage, we must have a breakthrough. We deserved a breakthrough. You sensed confidence coming back right through the team.

I thought the players were very determined today and I thought the crowd were fantastic. I thought they kept with the players. I think the players had self-belief back; they believed that maybe something would break for them. I think the players are really genuine. Today they were playing under a bit of pressure to try and get a result and to try and please people. Now they just need to keep going.

Steve Kean

It was wave after wave of attack from them. But I thought in the second half that we'd minimised Sunderland's threat from crosses. I thought we'd done enough defensively and that we were going to see the game out. I thought that we'd really managed the crosses and I felt we deserved something too.

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