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Scott Wilson Column: Why Sunderland should still be smiling
HAD Steve Bruce still been Sunderland manager, there is absolutely no chance the club would have been heading into April with their season effectively at an end.
In terms of end-of-season excitement, Martin O'Neill's arrival has been something of a let down. In every other respect, though, the Northern Irishman has transformed Sunderland's fortunes in a hugely positive manner.
That is worth remembering in the wake of Tuesday's undeniably disappointing FA Cup defeat to Everton, a result that has rendered the final eight games of the season largely redundant.
Had Bruce still been in position, those eight matches would have meant something all right – the difference between relegation and the security of 16th or 17th position. For all that Tuesday felt like a giant opportunity missed, it is important to recognise that the story of Sunderland's season is that of a potential catastrophe avoided.
Cast your mind back to late November and the club was in complete disarray. A tally of two league wins from 13 matches had plunged the Black Cats to the edge of the relegation zone, there was open revolt in the stands in the wake of a humiliating 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic and Bruce appeared to have no idea of how to blend his myriad of summer signings into a cohesive starting line-up.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that if Ellis Short and Niall Quinn had got the identity of Bruce's successor wrong, relegation and potential financial meltdown could have followed.
Any Sunderland supporter still wallowing in the aftermath of Tuesday's cup exit should cast their eyes towards Wolverhampton Wanderers and imagine what might have been. It does not take much to transform a team teetering on the brink into a club experiencing wholesale self destruct.
That Sunderland avoided such a fate is down almost exclusively to O'Neill. He has formed a cohesive starting line-up, largely by playing players in their preferred position, motivated a squad that had looked thoroughly dejected under Bruce and laid the foundations for what could be an extremely bright future.
Some of his success is undoubtedly down to luck – it is still easy to wonder what might have happened had Seb Larsson not cracked in that last-minute winner against Blackburn in O'Neill's opening game – but a combination of methodical preparation and inspiring man management has rapidly turned the Black Cats around.
As O'Neill himself acknowledged, Tuesday's defeat provided a jarring reminder of how much further progress is still required, but at least the summer should be about astute tinkering rather than the radical overhaul that looked necessary in the autumn.
That is not to say that significant challenges do not exist. The anticipated departure of Nicklas Bendtner will create a major hole up front, with Connor Wickham showing few signs of developing into the top-class striker Bruce clearly thought he was acquiring when he agreed to shell out £8.2m for the youngster's services.
As the last few transfer windows have proved, signing strikers is not easy, and with this week's accounts confirming that finances remain tight, O'Neill will need all of his acumen to identify and recruit the right man.
He will also be desperate to retain Stephane Sessegnon despite ongoing suggestions that the African has never really settled on the banks of the Wear. James McClean might have taken giant strides forward in the last few months, but Sessegnon remains Sunderland's one true attacking superstar. It is surely imperative that he is retained as the pivot around which the rest of the attack is formed.
Further back, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Wayne Bridge have added depth to the defence but little more. Neither will be retained beyond the end of the season – both will have to be permanently replaced by players of superior quality to ensure that Sunderland's back four is adequately staffed.
Decisions then, but ones that are intriguing rather than intractable. And while they might not be heading to Wembley, at least Sunderland know what division they will be making their choices in next season.
SUNDERLAND'S defeat wasn't the only bad news to emerge on Tuesday night – at the opposite end of the country, Middlesbrough skipper Matthew Bates was suffering the fifth cruciate ligament injury of his career.
One is generally enough to blunt most players, two tend to end a career. To survive three, not to mention four, is unprecedented in England's top two professional leagues.
Yet Bates, one of the most likeable players on the North-East scene, is about to embark on his fifth lengthy spell of recuperation.
Where he will play next is uncertain, as his Middlesbrough contract is due to expire this summer. It is only to be hoped that he reappears somewhere because there is so much he could go on to achieve.
THE North-East's most successful sports team from the last ten years are at it again. Newcastle Eagles remain on track for a clean sweep in British basketball after seeing off Plymouth Raiders to claim the BBL Trophy at the weekend.
The Eagles had already beaten the Raiders in the BBL Cup final at the start of the year, and remain top of the BBL League rankings with less than a quarter of the season to go.
They have dominated the British game for the last decade yet still do not always get the credit they deserve, partly because basketball remains something of a minority sport in this country and partly because the sport at a national level is based much further south.
Yet the Eagles are an incredible success story, not only thanks to their achievements on the court, which are unprecedented in this region, but also because of their efforts in the wider community.
More than 3,000 spectators were at Sport Central to see them lift their latest trophy, a fantastic show of support that is testament to the deep community links they have established over a number of years. As stars of the North-East sporting scene, they should be cherished.
THE RFU have made so many bad decisions in recent years that it seemed almost inevitable that they would overlook Stuart Lancaster's claims to be head coach despite his performances as interim boss during the recent Six Nations.
For once, the Twickenham blazers got it right. Lancaster has removed the stain created by last year's farcical World Cup campaign and deserves the opportunity to prepare a side for 2015, when the next World Cup will be contested in this country.