Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Martin O'Neill needs James McClean to deliver for Sunderland

James McClean and Sunderland are in a battle against relegation
James McClean and Sunderland are in a battle against relegation

Michael O'Neill looked to have the world on his shoulders after Tuesday night's World Cup defeat to Israel.

The Northern Ireland manager is not the only O'Neill from these parts feeling the heat of poor results at present, though.

Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill could do with a lift, as could his team, away from relegation trouble. The Black Cats are just four points clear of the drop zone and if Wigan were to win their game in hand O'Neill's team would be a single point above water.

They are on a terrible run having won just twice in 2013, the last one of those successes coming on January 19, meaning the north east outfit have gone seven matches without a victory.

In the last few days, O'Neill has been hit with a double whammy losing his two most influential players, striker Steven Fletcher and midfielder Lee Cattermole for the rest of the season.

Fletcher, who has scored one third of Sunderland's 33 league goals this season, suffered ankle ligament damage after just two minutes of Scotland's World Cup qualifier with Wales last week.

Cattermole has undergone surgery on his knee ligaments.

If the worrying lack of form and injury woes weren't bad enough, tomorrow Sunderland meet Manchester United, who are blitzing their way to the title and have not lost in the Premier League since November 17.

Perhaps the only saving grace for O'Neill is that Sir Alex Ferguson, with such a commanding lead over Manchester City at the top of the table, may rest some of his big hitters ahead of Monday's FA Cup quarter-final replay at Chelsea. O'Neill insists, though, that whoever Ferguson selects, will still ooze quality.

That being the case O'Neill will need all his renowned man- management and motivational skills from now until the end of the season.

The Wearsiders have a testing run-in which includes games against Chelsea, Everton and Spurs plus a derby in Newcastle and what could be a defining encounter with O'Neill's old side, fellow strugglers Aston Villa.

On three occasions the former Northern Ireland skipper led Villa to top six finishes in the top flight. He certainly doesn't want to be remembered as the man who led Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, to the Championship.

Right now, O'Neill is favourite to become the next Premier League boss to be sacked.

What a contrast to how he was viewed a year ago.

When he became manager midway through last season, the 61-year-old expertly steered a struggling Sunderland side to safety.

O'Neill's shrewd management and ability to get the best out of his players was key then, as was his decision to introduce former Derry City winger James McClean to the Premier League.

McClean was magnificent on the wing last term, creating havoc wherever he went. This time around he has failed to deliver.

Frustrated by that, O'Neill has been angered by McClean's ill-advised tweeting leading to serious question marks about the player's future at the Stadium of Light.

McClean owes O'Neill and could do himself the world of good with a strong finish to the campaign, making and scoring goals to help the team climb the table.

O'Neill watched McClean produce a promising display for the Republic of Ireland against Austria on Tuesday and will demand more of the same and better in the remaining league matches.

Throughout most of his managerial career, which has seen him enjoy significant success at Leicester City and Celtic, Martin O'Neill has been considered the man with the midas touch.

Some Sunderland fans question that mantle.

Martin needs to prove he still has it to save Sunderland's season – and probably his job.

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