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O'Neill delighted with how far Sunderland have come
WHEN Martin O'Neill watches his Sunderland side take on Wolves today, he will be reminded of the traumatic 24 hours that preceded his formal appointment as manager.
One glance at the Premier League table, however, and he will also be reminded of just how far his club has come.
Back in early December, O'Neill watched from the stands as Sunderland threw away a one-goal lead to slip to a 2-1 defeat at Molineux.
The following week, he was confirmed as Steve Bruce's successor and inherited a Black Cats team languishing in 17th place in the table, three points below Wolves.
Today, a remarkable 20 points separate the two clubs, with Sunderland, secure in 11th position, having lost just six of their 19 games under O'Neill. In the same period, Wolves, who could effectively be relegated this afternoon if other results go against them, have suffered 13 defeats.
The divergence in fortunes could hardly be more stark, but when he was driving away from the Midlands on that dark December night, O'Neill admits he harboured grave concerns about the size of the task he was about to take on.
"I was definitely concerned watching that game at Molineux," said the Sunderland boss. "To lose the game in the circumstances we did was troubling.
"The lack of confidence was my biggest worry. I wouldn't pretend I knew everything about the players' ability or the strength in depth here.
"Confidence was the main thing, and when you're in a game of that importance, even as it was in December against relegation-threatened rivals, you're thinking, 'Let's get something out of the game'. So when you're in a great position but lose, confidence is severely dented.
"We needed a pick me up straight away, and thankfully the players provided that the following week."
Seven days after losing at Molineux, Sunderland hosted another side competing with them at the bottom of the table, Blackburn Rovers.
The relegation zone beckoned when Simon Vukcevic fired Blackburn into an early lead, and for more than an hour, O'Neill's side failed to break down their obdurate opponents.
That all changed when David Vaughan fired home from distance with six minutes left, and while Seb Larsson went on to grab a dramatic stoppage-time winner with a direct free-kick, O'Neill highlights Sunderland's equaliser as the most important goal of his reign.
"I was genuinely concerned after the Wolves game, so looking back, maybe David's goal against Blackburn was the real turning point," he said. "The whole atmosphere changed when that went in. The stadium lifted and we went on to win the game.
"Then we won at QPR and having six points on the board from three matches (including Wolves) gave us a real chance over the Christmas period.
"James McClean's introduction against Blackburn made a difference because it gave us a real freshness we maybe lacked. But it was David's goal that really got things going."
Since then, Sunderland have barely looked back, hauling themselves into the top ten before last weekend's 4-0 defeat at Everton sent them back into the bottom half of the table.
There is a determination to claim a top-half finish at the end of the campaign, and preferably an improvement on last season, when a final-day win at West Ham enabled them to finish tenth.
However, with five games remaining, O'Neill has not lost sight of just how far his side have come since the days when a protracted relegation battle looked all but guaranteed.
"Was I mentally prepared for a relegation scrap? Absolutely," he said. "My first target was to think about getting a point per game.
"The Wolves game was our 14th of the season and we were stuck on 11 points. So if we'd got to a point per game by the 30th game of the season, I'd have been delighted.
"We've obviously achieved a lot more than that, and I couldn't be more delighted with the way the players have responded to the situation they were in."
Today's game provides an opportunity to move as high as ninth, and Sunderland could be boosted by a trio of players who all missed the trip to Goodison Park.
John O'Shea, Nicklas Bendtner and Fraizer Campbell all returned to training on Thursday and are expected to play at least some part in today's game.
However, with skipper Lee Cattermole struggling after limping out of last weekend's defeat, O'Neill is considering giving some of his fringe players some much-needed game time.
The likes of Connor Wickham, Ji Dong-won and Ahmed Elmohamady will all be keen to make a rare start, but their manager is also mindful of the need to win in front of the Stadium of Light crowd.
"It's a bit of a balancing act," he said. "In terms of match conditions, there are some of younger players who I probably don't know enough about. But whether you're young or old, you have to be deserving of your place in the side."
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