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O’Neill admits Cats lack quality
FIGHTING against relegation was not what Martin O'Neill had been expecting in his first full season in charge, but the Sunderland manager has admitted that he feared as much back in August.
The Black Cats head into tomorrow's visit of Norwich City, who sit just three points ahead, and they cannot afford to lose for the fifth time in seven matches if they want to stay clear of the bottom three.
Last weekend's 3-1 defeat at Queens Park Rangers heightened fears Sunderland are slipping further into trouble ahead of a run of fixtures against Manchester United, Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton.
Sunderland sit just six points above the relegation zone but the majority of the teams below them are picking up points so the gap is not as strong as O'Neill would like.
He has been disappointed with the progress his team have made this season, suggesting that more new faces are required on top of the additions he has already made since last summer.
O'Neill has spent more than £30m on Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Alfred N'Diaye and Danny Graham, as well as the loan signing of Kader Mangane.
But the former Aston Villa boss said: "It's been a tough season, but I knew that from August time. I knew it was going to be a tough season for us. We tried to look at some things in January ... I think we'd all felt it was going to be tough.
"The top half of the table is still possible. Win a couple of games and you can still do it. But the fact is that it's been tough all year round and if that's the case that might be something to look at again.
"The season before that had been tough. We'd come in and staved off a relegation fight and I think we need an improvement in the ability in the squad. I think that's pretty well obvious."
O'Neill went on to make the point that he has realised his squad lacks "real true ability" in his bid to turn the club he supported as a boy into a top six team.
"That's exactly what I'd like to do. And I think the club is capable of sustaining that. That's the point," he said.
He added: "Everton is the case in point. There is absolutely no reason why Sunderland cannot be there (the top six).
"We are not a top-six team by any stretch of the imagination. But Sunderland is a top-six club in the making. And that I genuinely believe. I'll believe that until I leave this earth."
With nine matches remaining O'Neill wants to see greater signs of progress before working on a further summer of change at the Stadium of Light, starting when Chris Hughton brings his out-of-sorts Canaries to Wearside tomorrow.
Norwich have only won one of their last 12 Premier League fixtures and O'Neill is hopeful of a return to winning ways, having been impressed with the attitude of his squad in difficult times.
"The sooner we can get the points the better, obviously," said O'Neill, who will include striker Connor Wickham in his 18 after returning from a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday and James McClean, who has shrugged off illness.
"I think that to get those points you have to show that determination, you have to show that bit of fight in adversity.
"And, in fairness, over the course of the season we might lack a lot of things - we lack real true ability in the team - but I'm not so sure that I would always question the desire of the players.
"We could have fallen out of the game against Fulham here, but we fought back and really should have won.
"We had a visit from a referee here who has said that we have been a bit unlucky on penalty calls, particularly the West Bromwich Albion game, which the referees have all said since in their meeting that if you call it in one direction you've got to do it in the other.
"But from this distance, even as I say these words to you, they really don't mean a great deal, you really have to go and win some football matches."