MARTIN O’NEILL suffered a double blow on the eve of his first anniversary as Sunderland boss after watching leading scorer Steven Fletcher go off injured during yesterday’s defeat at Norwich City.
The striker was withdrawn at half-time after struggling with an ankle injury during the first half at Carrow Road and O’Neill now faces an anxious wait to discover the extent of his injury.
Losing Fletcher for any period of time will be a huge blow for the Black Cats, who have largely relied on their £12m man for goals.
The Scotland international has scored almost half of Sunderland’s goals this season, and although he was largely anonymous in the first half at Carrow Road, his presence in the side would be missed.
Fletcher’s injury will be assessed by the club’s medical staff today, but O’Neill admitted he could have done with the striker as his side pushed for an equaliser yesterday.
“He was struggling in the last ten minutes of the first half. I thought there was no point going on with it,”
O’Neill said after the 2-1 defeat.
“I’m not sure of the extent of the damage but we might have a better idea today.
“It would have been nice to have had him on the field in the second half. He might have been able to finish one of them off but it wasn’t to be.
“Having said that, I thought young Connor Wickham applied himself very well and became a bit of a handful for Norwich. That’s encouraging for him.”
Despite only having a single appearance to his name this season, Wickham came on ahead of Fraizer Campbell and James McFadden and was named on the bench at the expense of Louis Saha.
The teenage striker did produce a lively display, but despite creating several chances in the second half, Sunderland couldn’t find a leveller.
Their second half display was much-improved from the opening 45 minutes, which was arguably the Black Cats’ worst display of a disappointing season so far, and O’Neill admitted that was their downfall at the end.
He said: “I felt we contributed to our own failings, particularly in the first half, but to dominate the way we did in the second half was encouraging.
“I said to the players if we perform in the second half, we will be fine but we’ve got to keep at it. We’re certainly not good enough to gift goals to teams and be able to turn that round. The top sides are able to do that but we’re certainly not a top side.
“We were very, very tentative in the first half, more than tentative we were very poor. We were second to the ball for most of the half and when we had it we gave it away too easily. We had to wait until we were 2-0 down before we got going.
“In the second half I thought we were terrific. We created some great chances.”
Craig Gardner and Stephane Sessegnon looked most likely to grab an equaliser with the Black Cats dominating in the second period.
The all-important second goal didn’t come, though, but O’Neill insisted there were positives to take from the game.
“I think on the second half performance we should have got something out of the game. We were as good second half as we were very poor in the first.
“I think Norwich defensively were hanging on but they had the two-goal cushion and that eventually proved enough.
“We had to really get to grips with the game which we hadn’t done at all. We hadn’t closed players down when we didn’t have possession of the ball.
“It was really poor from our point of view and it is an uphill struggle in the Premier League when you give one goal away, never mind two.
“But we really applied ourselves in the second half. We played some really nice football but more importantly we played with a better tempo and started to create things in and around the penalty area.
“We missed some real glorious chances that at any other time would have found the net.”
Sunderland now sit one point and one place above the relegation places, but O’Neill refused to admit his side were involved in a relegation fight.
He said: “It’s a battle for us and we have to pull through, it’s as simple as that.
“It was a battle last year so hopefully the experiences we got from last year will stand us in good stead.
“The confidence in the side was restored in the second half performance. But eventually in a couple of weeks’ time it will all be forgotten.
We need to win a football match, get ourselves in front and stay there.
“I was nearly going to say we were unlucky, but you have to make your own luck in this world. There’s a long way to go.
“A couple of sides down beside us just recently have had good runs.
“Stoke City have taken 12 or 13 points in recent games.
We’ve got to win a couple of matches in relatively quick succession.”