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Bent in praise of Sunderland
Carlos Cuellar became the first arrival of the Martin O’Neill era when he joined Sunderland as a free agent this month. The pair have worked together in the past, but as Scott Wilson discovered, another former Black Cat played a crucial role in the defender’s move
GIVEN his desperation to engineer a move away from the Stadium of Light, you would imagine Darren Bent would not have a lot of positive things to say about Sunderland.
The Aston Villa striker appeared disillusioned with life on Wearside as he forced through his move to the Midlands in January 2011, with the submission of a transfer request underlining the extent of his fractured relationship with the Black Cats.
So when Carlos Cuellar turned to Bent for advice about a proposed switch to Sunderland last month, you could be forgiven for assuming that the response would be lukewarm.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. With Bent providing a glowing reference, Cuellar agreed to become Martin O’Neill’s first signing as Sunderland manager, turning down alternative offers from Spain and Greece in the process.
It won’t make Sunderland supporters go any easier on him when he appears on Wearside in a Villa strip in November, but perhaps Bent’s previous words about “embracing the North-East” were not quite as hollow as they previously seemed.
“I knew all about Sunderland before I met the manager because I’d been with Darren and he was always saying very good things about the club, the city, the supporters, the atmosphere and everything,”
said Cuellar, who was part of the squad that flew to South Korea yesterday ahead of this week’s friendly doubleheader in the Peace Cup.
“All the time when we were together, he had good things to say. We were talking last year when Sunderland were interested and he was always saying good things.
“Even when I was in Scotland and in Spain I liked it too.
I always watch the Premier League and I knew the club.”
He also knew all about O’Neill, having worked under the Northern Irishman when he was in charge at Villa Park.
It is often said that a manager’s first signing speaks volumes for his preferred methodology, and by turning to Cuellar, a free agent following his release at the end of last season, O’Neill has put his faith in a player he clearly respects and trusts.
The Sunderland boss has described the Spaniard as a “sound and strong character”, and having chopped and changed his back four on numerous occasions last season, it would be no surprise to see O’Neill installing the 30-yearold at the heart of a more settled unit this time around.
The pair clearly enjoy a mutual respect, something that helped persuade Cuellar to spurn interest from Olympiacos and Sevilla in order to sign for the Black Cats.
“I’ve worked with him before for two years and know the way he likes to work, the way he likes to play and I know he likes to be as high as possible in the table,” he said.
“He tries to do the best possible every year, and I follow him. I get the same thing from him and try to do my best at the best club possible.”
Speak to the vast majority of players who have worked under O’Neill, and it does not take long to detect a deeprooted admiration for his man-management methods.
But what exactly makes the Sunderland manager such an inspirational figure?
“Because he was a player, he knows what you’re thinking every moment, what you need every moment and he is very good at reading how you’re feeling,” said Cuellar.
“He gives you everything you need to make sure you give him everything back.
There is good communication and that makes it easy.
“The way he trains and the way you play with him, it’s enjoyable, but there is pressure with him too.
“Training every day is fantastic.
It is always enjoyable, you come in happy every day, that is the main thing but afterwards there is a big pressure to play because he wants to win every game.
“You are allowed to play your football and do your best.
You can have a different relationship with the manager, and have a joke maybe in training but when you have a game you have to work, you have to play, you have to be 100 per cent.
“He gives you a lot of confidence and you are allowed to do everything you want with your skills and the way you play, but there is also a responsibility on you to work hard.”
That blend is something that Cuellar clearly relishes, and as he prepares to make his first appearance in a Sunderland shirt in this week’s Peace Cup tournament that will see the Wearsiders take on South Korean side Seongnam on Thursday and either Hamburg or FC Groningen on Sunday, he insists that joining the Black Cats was an easy decision to make.
“The manager said he wanted the opportunity to work with me again, he had confidence in me and he would like me to be here,” he said. “After that, that was it. It was as easy as that, a click of the fingers.”