Sunderland 3 Queens Park Rangers 1
THERE were enough reminders of the not too distant past on show at the Stadium of Light, but there is a distinct feeling that Sunderland are a club heading towards a bright future.
Firstly unused Queens Park Rangers substitute Joey Barton - who later aimed another swipe using Twitter - teased Sunderland fans about the part he played for Newcastle United in last season's 5-1 horror show at St James' Park.
Secondly there were plenty home supporters singing old favourite Djibril Cisse's name as he trudged off the pitch following his second half red card for a horrible two-footed lunge on Fraizer Campbell.
And then Nedum Onuoha, one of Steve Bruce's most reliable players last season, had his own sorry part to play in QPR's ability to press the self destruct button as they dropped in to the bottom three. Not to mention Anton Ferdunand's less than convincing display at the heart of the Hoops defence.
But these are different times at Sunderland. A certain level of progress was made during the eras of Roy Keane and Bruce, but O'Neill looks best equipped to take the club on to the next level – and that could yet arrive as early as this season.
Had Mark Hughes, resembling a puzzled and frustrated figure in the Rangers dug-out on Wearside, got his wish he would have taken over from Bruce in December. It is hard to believe there is a single Sunderland fan out there unhappy with the man they got instead.
Sunderland were in the midst of a relegation fight when O'Neill took over. Now, courtesy of Saturday's comfortable home win over QPR, with eight matches remaining they have already reached the points total he had initially been targeting to finish with come May.
With relegation fears completely erased, it's time to look forward. There is a FA Cup quarter-final replay with Everton tomorrow night – and then who knows from there.
“I am delighted. Very, very pleased with this result and some of the goals we scored were excellent,” said O'Neill after watching Nicklas Bendtner, James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon all find the target against QPR to lift Sunderland to within two points of seventh placed Liverpool.
“Overall it was a very good performance by us and I have got to be satisfied with that. If you had given me 40 points when I first took over then I would have taken that off you, even before the end of the season.”
Prior to the visit of QPR he had spoken of a desire to give the likes of Connor Wickham, Ahmed Elmohamady and Ji Dong-Won more game time between now and the end of the season. He was, though, keen to ensure the 40 point mark was reached first.
With first base achieved, he is likely to use the Premier League run-in to try to assess the squad he has at his disposal ahead of a close-season in which he will bring in a number of his own players.
“I genuinely hadn't realised we were so close to Liverpool,” said O'Neill, after being about Wigan's win at Anfield. “It was a surprise Liverpool losing, but just winning was good for us.
“I know it is six points from nine, but we were not on the best of runs. I hadn't seen it as a poor run, but I'm just pleased to have won more than anything because it sets us up for Tuesday in terms of confidence.”
Tomorrow night's visit of Everton has the makings of being one of the greatest nights in the club's recent history. With a first appearance at Wembley since its rebuild on the horizon, the queues for tickets suggested the FA Cup has captured the city's imagination.
If Sunderland can perform to the standard they did against QPR then they stand every chance of reaching the semi-final - at least.
It all started when McClean's inviting centre from the left was met with a well-directed header from Bendtner which nestled in to Paddy Kenny's bottom left corner four minutes before half-time.
And when Cisse stupidly dived in with two feet on Campbell nine minutes after the break to receive his second dismissal since his January move from Lazio, Sunderland never looked in danger.
Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, on his home debut, combined well with Michael Turner at the heart of the defence to thwart a pretty tame QPR attack; even after John O'Shea had left the field with a calf problem midway through the first half.
But it was going forward that Sunderland, who also hit the bar with a thunderbolt Craig Gardner free-kick, caused the biggest stir. McClean was outstanding, causing problems to the visitors' defence throughout and his presence earned him his fourth goal since moving from Derry City last summer.
With the 22-year-old in close attendance, Onuoha failed to deal with a routine ball forward and McClean nipped in. After having his first shot blocked, the winger made no mistake with the rebound with 20 minutes remaining.
Then he had a hand in the third. His clever pass down the line fed David Vaughan and the Welshman picked out the unmarked Sessegnon at the back post to power low beyond Kenny to make the game safe.
The impact of McClean could not be under-estimated, something not lost on O'Neill, describing his fellow Derryman as "a constant threat all day".
QPR's Nigerian full-back Taye Taiwo – himself a former Sunderland target during Bruce's days in charge – did have time to conjure up a moment of brilliance with a 22-yard free-kick to pull one back. Sunderland, though, had already done enough to edge closer to those above them.
The problem O'Neill, who also expects Phil Bardsley and Seb Larsson to be available again tomorrow, now has is who to leave out for the FA Cup quarter-final. That said, it's better than the annual worry about a drop in to the Championship at this stage.