AT last, Martin O’Neill could afford a wry smile in Saturday’s post-match press conference.
His side had won in the Premier League for the first time this season, beating Wigan 1-0, after staying unbeaten in the previous four outings, where criticisms from some quarters had surfaced throwing forward statistics from last season where Sunderland’s campaign had fizzled out.
Before Saturday, O’Neill’s side had failed to win in 12 Premier League games – the fact that this is over two seasons seems immaterial to some. It was reminiscent of Mick McCarthy’s record in the top flight, his detractors conveniently forgetting that in the middle of Sunderland’s 20- game run of defeats, there was a gap of two years which included a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup. There are lies, damned lies and statistics.
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While Sunderland’s failure to win may have sounded alarm bells somewhere, what cannot be denied is that the Black Cats are one of three sides to remain unbeaten this season. The other two are Manchester City and Chelsea, Premier League and European champions respectively.
So, in such exalted company, are Sunderland being touted as contenders for a top-four place this season? No.
O’Neill, in typical sardonic style, was primarily delighted with his side’s victory – though aware that the statistic will still be presented to him.
“Last Saturday there was genuine disappointment at conceding so late on in the match and coming into this game with a bit of that hanging on, maybe the crowd expect you to win, but I didn’t really think about it like that, I just thought it was going to be a tough game for us,” said O’Neill, who saw Steven Fletcher continue his fine start to the season with the winner after Jordi Gomez had been sent off for Wigan.
“But to see it through was very pleasing. I don’t mind people quoting the stats – it’ll be one in 13 now.
He smiled: “Somebody told me last Friday that this was a new season, but I never believed it – I thought it was just a continuation.
“We tried to win the game, we did and it was a bit frayed towards the end, but we saw it through.”
Despite Fletcher’s goal, Sunderland were indebted to their man at the other end, Simon Mignolet, who made two potentially game-saving saves in the first half.
First of all, he saved from James McCarthy on four minutes after the Latics midfielder waltzed unchallenged into the area, then from Arouna Kone on 15 minutes after good work from Jean Beausejour on the left flank found the Ivorian four yards out, only to be denied by the big Belgian.
Goalscorers are important, but O’Neill appreciates the job of the man between the sticks.
When asked about Mignolet, O’Neill said: “He’s saying himself rather modestly he doesn’t know how he got to one of them, he just stuck his body in the way and I haven’t seen it back so it might be the case. But he’s been fantastic.
“And he knows with [Keiren] Westwood, who is a very, very fine goalkeeper, he’s on his toes all the time. But really great.
“And a genuinely lovely fella too, not that it matters a hoot.
As long as he keeps the ball out.”
Sunderland picked up the pace following Wigan’s early chances, with Craig Gardner firing over on 23 minutes from Stephane Sessegnon’s square ball.
And, after Adam Johnson was pulled down on the edge of the area by James McArthur, John O’Shea had a header diverted out for a corner – which Fletcher headed wide.
On 34 minutes, Wigan went on the attack and Kone was unlucky to get the ball caught under his feet after Titus Bramble fluffed his lines from Gomez’ pass.
The first half belonged to Wigan in terms of chances created, but Sunderland’s attack play was easier on the eye.
However, Wigan’s game plan went out of the window moments into the second half when Gomez went in hard on Rose. At full-speed, Howard Webb’s decision to dismiss the Spaniard seemed justified, but replays suggested that it may have been somewhat harsh.
Sunderland added insult to injury four minutes later when they fully capitalised on the sending-off, with McClean dragging his shot wide only for Fletcher to hit a first time shot on his instep past Ali Al Habsi.
While the goal should have opened up the floodgates, Wigan still looked capable of hitting Sunderland on the counter-attack as Sunderland seemed incapable of adding to the lead.
Sessegnon went close with a rifled effort on 54 minutes, while a Johnson free-kick was diverted wide on 68 minutes.
A fine display at the back, a competent display up top – O’Neill knows that his side cannot rely on Fletcher to get them out of trouble all the time.
O’Neill said: “It may well become a concern. He’s been terrific for us, really terrific and he’s scored every single goal.
“And obviously I thought he was terrific in the game, but I’m hoping that over the course of time, maybe the next six or seven matches, that a few more can add to that. We need that, because we just cannot become reliant on that one source.”
O’Neill was delighted to include Johnson in his team after the former Manchester City midfielder passed a late fitness test. It was a gamble, but 80 minutes under his belt will stand the Sunderland-born player in good stead for his return to the Etihad next week.
O’Neill said: “It was good to have Johnson back. The truth is that he had a fitness test on the morning of the game. He didn’t train on Friday, but he felt decent enough to start the game, so we thought ‘yeah, let’s go for it, let’s get the crowd enthused’ and he was struggling towards the end obviously.
“It’s really good for him to get 80 minutes and if he comes out of that unscathed, which I hope he has done, then that bodes well for us.”
So, three teams in the Premier League are unbeaten and one of them is Sunderland. Is O’Neill getting carried away?
“I genuinely hadn’t looked at it like that,” he said.
“Well, I did really, because I was told it was Manchester City and Chelsea. There you go.
We’re in big company. But it’s early yet, very early yet, I’m just delighted we’ve got the win, seriously.”