Early Doors

Can Sunderland sustain O’Neill Effect?

Early Doors

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Martin O'Neill

It's a good time to be a football fan in the North East at the moment.

Newcastle's win at Blackburn last night lifted them up to fifth in the table, above Liverpool and Arsenal and just three points off a Champions League place.

Middlesbrough may have drawn at Leicester, but they are looking better at the moment than at any time since their relegation from the Premier League three years ago.

But right now the club on the most remarkable rise in the region is Sunderland. Last night's 3-0 win over Norwich summed up the feel-good factor that is currently engulfing the Stadium of Light since Martin O'Neill was appointed manager.

Fraizer Campbell, having not kicked a ball in anger for 17 months because of a nightmare cruciate ligament injury, followed up his goal against Boro in the FA Cup at the weekend with a wonderful dipping strike to open the scoring against the Canaries. Stephane Sessegnon, a player who struggled under the management of O'Neill's predecessor Steve Bruce, scored his fourth goal in his last seven league games by heading home a flowing move that he had started. James McClean, a young winger who never got a look in under Bruce, continued to repay the faith shown in him by O'Neill having been handed his debut in the manager's first match in the dugout.

Since O'Neill took over on Wearside at the start of December, the Black Cats have won six of his nine league games in charge. The two defeats they have suffered in that time have been away losses at Tottenham and Chelsea, and in amongst that run was a 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year's Day.

From taking just 11 points from their first 13 games of the season under Steve Bruce, Sunderland are now on 30 from 23. When O'Neill arrived, they were 16th. Now they are eighth, on course for their best league finish in more than a decade.

As this nifty table from Opta shows, no team has performed better in the Premier League since O'Neill first took to the dugout on December 11. He had been appointed on the third of that month, but let assistant Eric Black take charge of the game against Wolves the following day and then had an international break to prepare for the visit of Blackburn.

Of course, such tables are diverting but ultimately irrelevant. A similar table at the end of last season showed how Liverpool were the league's second-best side from the day Kenny Dalglish took over. Not exactly a presage for success, then.

Sunderland are by no means the first club to enjoy the 'O'Neill Effect' at the start of his reign. In his first job at Wycombe Wanderers, the Chairmen began the season with just one defeat in their first 12 matches, including a run of five straight wins.

At Leicester he won six of his first 10 games in charge, at Celtic he won each of his first dozen matches and for Aston Villa he had an 11-game unbeaten start which included draws at Arsenal and Chelsea.

A team experiencing a bounce under a new manager is one thing. Maintaining that upward trajectory is quite another.

Under O'Neill, Villa ended up not so hitting a glass ceiling as banging their head against a brick wall. A string of questionable signings and the gamble of fielding a weakened team in the latter stages of the UEFA Cup that didn't pay off meant the progress made at Villa Park halted abruptly just before they could make the step up.

This season's deadline-day signings of Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos may well have Sunderland fans scratching their heads. Still, if anyone can get the best out of a pair of 30-something defenders deemed not good enough for two of the Premier League's better sides in the short term then it is O'Neill.

Unless you are from Newcastle or Middlesbrough, it is hard not to be pleased for the avuncular Ulsterman's impact on Wearside, but it remains to be seen how the team takes shape once he has truly got his feet under the table.

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Of course, anything that happened in last night's matches - and almost anywhere else, for that matter - pales into insignificance when placed against the tragic events in Egypt.

Shortly before the Premier League matches kicked off, and while two African Cup of Nations matches were being played in Gabon, violence erupted at a match in Port Said.

Seventy-four people were killed and more than 1,000 injured when supporters clashed at a match between home team Al-Masry and Cairo giants Al-Ahly, prompting fans and politicians to turn on the ruling army for failing to prevent the deadliest incident since Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

While these events appear to have had little to do with football, the fact that they happened at a stadium full of fans is truly chilling.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said in a statement: "I am very shocked and saddened to learn this evening that a large number of football supporters have died or been injured following a match in Port Said, Egypt.

"My thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives this evening.

"This is a black day for football. Such a catastrophic situation is unimaginable and should not happen."

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I have seen the Ferdinand case has been put back. On this basis I do not believe that the England captain should go to the Euros. Innocent until proven guilty is not always the case in football as Rio found out in his case. Also more importantly, believe me, the dressing room at the Euros could be toxic." - Jason Roberts adds his voice to the calls for John Terry to step down as England captain after it was confirmed he will stand trial in July for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. Terry entered a not guilty plea at a London magistrates court yesterday.

STAT OF THE DAY: Leeds United sacked manager Simon Grayson yesterday following their 4-1 home defeat to Birmingham City. According to the statistics Grayson is the most successful boss in the club's history with a win rate of 62.7%, more than Don Revie (62.1%), David O'Leary (57.4%) or Howard Wilkinson (43.3%). But his record has been cultivated in the second and third tiers.

FOREIGN VIEW: There was plenty of excitement on the continent last night. Barcelona drew the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final at Valencia 1-1, in which Lionel Messi had a second-half penalty saved by goalkeeper Diego Alves. The Valencia keeper has an exemplary record from 12 yards, conceding only 30% of spot-kicks he has faced, and is now the only man ever to save penalties from both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In Italy, Juventus remain a point clear at the top of Serie A despite their match falling victim to heavy snow after title rivals Milan were beaten 2-0 at Lazio, while Internazionale drew 4-4 with Palermo in a match which saw Fabrizio Miccoli net a hat-trick and Diego Milito score four times.

COMING UP: Highlights of all the midweek Premier League matches are online to view right now. Later today we will be opening the poll on Goal of the Week, running down the latest injury news with The Fantasist's Injury Report and getting blogs on the upcoming European Championships from Eurospot and the Bundesliga from Never Mind the Ballacks.

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