A SATISFIED Martin O'Neill is hoping yesterday's 3-1 win at Fulham will be a springboard to send Sunderland shooting up the Premier League table.
Second-half goals from Steven Fletcher, Carlos Cuellar and Stephane Sessegnon earned the Black Cats a first Premier League away win since February, and lifted much of the pressure that had been mounting following a run of just one win from 18 league matches.
Things might have been different had Brede Hangeland not been dismissed for a first-half challenge on Lee Cattermole, and Sunderland also benefited from a second-half injury to Mladen Petric that briefly left Fulham playing with nine men.
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However, after little had gone his side's way in the first three months of the season, O'Neill is hoping yesterday's success will spark a marked change in fortunes.
“Confidence is a big thing, and when you see someone like Sessegnon score that type of goal, you hope it helps,” said O'Neill, who watched his side's Benin international drill a spectacular long-range strike into the corner of the net to seal a much-needed success.
“He's been searching for that confidence all season, as has the rest of the team. There were signs of it coming back last week at Everton. We created three great chances in the first half and should have been able to take more than the one we did. We created chances again today and shared the goals around.”
Sessegnon's first goal of the season was especially welcome as the African had struggled to reproduce anything approximating his best form in the opening ten Premier League matches.
He was much more threatening throughout yesterday's game, with O'Neill sensing that some off-field stability is improving his on-pitch performances.
“There was a couple of months last season when Sessegnon was absolutely fantastic for us,” he said. “He ended up winning the Player of the Year, but he's been searching for that form.
“I think his family are settling now and that helps. Some of the family were living in Paris, but now he's got settled and that's important.
“That type of goal was pleasing, but he can strike the ball. You wouldn't have said that from the first six or seven games of the season, but in training his ball striking is absolutely excellent. Now, he's taking that confidence on to the pitch.”
The same can be said of Adam Johnson, who produced arguably his best display in a Sunderland shirt as he set up his side's opening two goals.
Johnson has failed to fire since making a £10m move from Manchester City in the summer, but after an improved showing at Goodison Park last weekend, he is finally beginning to offer the kind of attacking threat that most had expected when he returned to his North-East roots.
“He's getting there,” said O'Neill. “Adam was getting 20 or 25 minutes in matches at Manchester City, and was generally coming on to try to do something or coming on when they were in front.
“Here, he's starting the matches, but with respect to us, we're not remotely as good as Manchester City so he's having to strive and do more for us than he would ever have had to have done there.”
For all of Sunderland's impressive attacking though, things might well have been different had Hangeland not been dismissed shortly after the half-hour mark.
The Fulham skipper launched into a two-footed tackle on Cattermole, and while his feet were back on the ground when he made contact, referee Lee Probert had no real alternative to a straight red card.
“It is amazing the number of players who are still getting sent off for challenges like that,” said O'Neill. “I don't know how many times we have to be told about it, and I say that knowing we've been guilty ourselves with Lee Cattermole being sent off.
“Sometimes, I don't understand players. If you don't go in two-footed, I don't think anyone is going to consider you a bit of a coward. Quite the opposite. Any manager will tell you, you've got a better chance of winning a football match if you have all your players available throughout the game.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fulham boss Martin Jol saw things somewhat differently. He said: “I think he (Probert) was probably the only person in the stadium who really thought it was a red card.
“By the letter of the law, two feet off the ground is a red card, but he (Hangeland) slipped with his foot and that was why his foot left the ground. It would be nice if referees could sometimes take decisions in the spirit of the game.”