In the programme notes for the game against Wolves on Saturday, Sunderland’s chairman Ellis Short reflected on how far the Black Cats had come since the teams had last met.
That game was the one match between Steve Bruce’s sacking and the appointment of Martin O’Neill. Since then, exactly half a season had passed – 19 games – in which the team had gained 31 points. If that form was repeated over a whole season, Short argued, the team would have gained enough points (62) to finish fifth last season.
What’s more in that time, Sunderland have gone from being three points behind Wolves to 20 points ahead of them. It’s some turnaround and Short is right that the bigger picture is one of a club on an upward curve, but look closely at the results Sunderland have gained under O’Neill and you can see they fall into two distinct parts – the first 10 games, in which the team gained 22 points, and the second 10 games (including the Wolves game) in which the team have gained just 10 points.
Early momentum from O’Neill’s appointment has gone and there is a danger that that upward curve could plateau or even head into a short-term downturn. There was the hope that Sunderland could respond to the setback of a disappointing 4-0 defeat away at Everton, with a win against a Wolves side rooted at the bottom of the table following seven straight defeats.
After the match, Black Cat’s keeper Simon Mignolet said the players were all focused on finishing as high up the table as possible, yet there was a distinctly end-of-term feel to the game. While both teams had at least one clear chance to secure all three points neither produced a performance worthy of victory and there were boos from the home crowd at the final whistle.
It left a frustrated O’Neill thanking Short for his comments while acknowledging they hadn’t done enough to win the game and suggesting it had been a “reality check” and that reality is he’s probably taken the squad that inherited as far as he can. “Perhaps it might show we have a lot of work to do,” the Sunderland boss continued.
He’s already given youth its head with the regular inclusion of James McClean and Jack Colback in his starting line-ups and he looks set to do so again with 19-year-old Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won, the 20-year-old who became a hero for his New Year’s Day winner against Manchester City, looking likely to feature in the season’s remaining games.
However, more significant than that will be the size of the budget O’Neill has to work with during the close season and how well he uses it to supplement the players he already has at his disposal.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Aston