Paul Parker

O’Neill now knows size of Sunderland task

Paul Parker

Martin O'Neill took his seat at Molineux on Sunday to watch Sunderland play the day before taking his first official training session as the club's new manager.

After watching the Black Cats relinquish their lead and ultimately lose 2-1 against a side that could well be one of their rivals in a fight against relegation, the penny must have dropped regarding the enormity of the task ahead of him. With the club just a point off relegation as he begins his job there, you would like to think that the only way is up, but that may not necessarily be the case.

In terms of expectations on Wearside, O'Neill pretty much has his bases covered. The Stadium of Light has seen just three home wins in the league in 2011, and one of those was against Blackburn on New Year's Day. Rovers are the next team to play at the Stadium of Light, while Everton will visit on Boxing Day. Back-to-back wins in those two games would immediately lift the mood in the squad and in the city as a whole.

If O'Neill is not able to garner results against that pair, or on trips to Tottenham and QPR before the year is out, then his case for a substantial overhaul of the squad in the January transfer window is only strengthened.

There are few decent players on Sunderland's books, but when three of those are all goalkeepers you can understand why several new faces need to brought in as soon as possible. There is also plenty of dead wood he will want to shift as he aims to turn things around.

Right through the spine of the team there is substantial room for improvement. The centre of defence looks exposed, there is very little in the way of creativity in midfield and none of their strikers have scored more than two league goals so far this season.

It was a little more than a year ago that local rivals Newcastle handed Sunderland a 5-1 schooling at St James' Park. Since then, the Magpies have gone on to bigger and better things, while Sunderland have gone in the opposite direction.

Both sides found themselves with big windfalls in January when their respective star strikers were sold. You only have to look at the league to conclude who spent the wisest. It must be a galling sight for Sunderland fans when they crane their necks to look up the table at their neighbours.

O'Neill has been away from the front line for more than a year. While he has been keeping himself busy as a pundit during that time, it will be interesting to see who he goes for in the transfer market. Has he kept his finger on the pulse, or will he just return to former clubs to sign players he has worked with before?

In the short term, however, O'Neill has to instil confidence back in the camp among the players he has inherited. Steve Bruce was ambushed by Asamoah Gyan's decision to go to the Middle East on loan after the summer transfer window had shut, but the Ghanaian's departure was perhaps symptomatic of how low morale was under the former manager.

Some people were surprised by O'Neill taking the Sunderland job, seeing it as a step down, but I do not agree. The manner in which he left Aston Villa, just days before the start of last season, tarnished his reputation somewhat. After a decent few years at Villa Park, his tenure there had begun to stagnate in any case.

And let's not forget that he was on the verge of taking over at West Ham at the start of the year, hardly a move in keeping with a manager once pegged as a future boss of Manchester United, Liverpool, and even England.

O'Neill has taken a job in which he is not only looking to turn around Sunderland's fortunes, but his own too.

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