SUNDERLAND'S mid-season trip to Dubai has been described as a holiday by some supporters, but Martin O'Neill thinks the opportunity to get away provided his players with more time to bond.
The Black Cats, who return to action at West Bromwich Albion today, have been back on Wearside training in colder temperatures this week after returning from the warm weather break to the United Arab Emirates.
It was the squad's first opportunity to spend an extended length of time with January recruits Danny Graham, Kader Mangane and Alfred N'Diaye and O'Neill thinks the early indications are positive.
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Sunderland were not the only English team to be out in the Middle East at the time, with other managers having similar ideas to filling the free week after being knocked out of the FA Cup.
Regardless of the early exit in the FA Cup, the former Celtic boss thinks there should be more chances at this time of year for clubs to take their players away to relax.
O'Neill said: "When I was in Scotland we had a break in January, it's nothing to do with when the weather, it's about a focal point. If you talk to the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson about a break, he says it means players can relax for a week and then build up for the rest of the season.
"Players with injuries can get a bit of sun and it has to be beneficial psychologically and physically. I'm a great believer in it. I'm pleased we've done it. Does it mean we just go and win games now we've been out there? No.
"Four or five Premier League sides were there at the same time so we can't all go on and win games. It's like the saying about every team in Italy eating pasta before games - some teams still get relegated.
"It's not just about what you eat and what you do, but it's beneficial for us that we have been there and I hope that will be the case with just less than a third of the season to go and it's really worthwhile."
Sunderland's squad has always been strong spirited and are often out together as a group to strengthen the bond. Given the addition of three fresh faces last month, though, O'Neill felt there was a chance to help - even without specific exercises.
"It gives them a chance to integrate on a social basis as much as anything else," he said. "We trained early in the morning before it was too hot. Beyond that whatever the players do or don't do is up to them in terms of extra training.
"I've come back from these breaks with previous clubs where we've been flying and with others where we've stuttered and they haven't thought it was such a good idea.
"Paint-balling or going on safari is not for me as ideas for them to do. I think the bonding comes from within. I'd rather the bonding happened more naturally. If you're together for three or four days it's inevitable you'll get to know someone better."
Defender Mangane is yet to make an appearance since his move from Al-Hilal on loan last month, sitting on the bench three times. O'Neill is keen to see him in action if he is to consider a permanent move in the summer.
But the Sunderland boss, who has allowed left-back Danny Rose to return to parent club Tottenham for treatment on his hamstring problem, said: "Mangane will play for us, otherwise what's the point in bringing him here? But we are just being careful.
"Sotirios Kyriagkos came in last season and we knew he hadn't played for some time, he said he'd done quite a lot of running with his German team so we threw him in rather quickly. He didn't get off to the best start and lost a bit of confidence over it.
"When Mangane came over here he looked a little short of fitness. He was just a wee bit short of match work but he's gaining it now so I'd like him to be as well prepared as possible. He's on loan at this moment and really if we are looking to do something in the summer he must play some matches here."
After December's promising rise up the table, Sunderland's good form has stuttered again since the turn of the year. Just two wins from seven games in 2013 - including a FA Cup defeat to Bolton - has left them six points from the bottom three again ahead of the trip to the Hawthorns.
O'Neill said: "There's still work to do. Any side where we are at this minute, they've got to feel uncomfortable because it's very tight and I don't think anyone from where we are downwards...it's still very tight."