Another disappointing cup exit to a Championship side has seen Sunderland left to focus on Premier League duties. We want O'Neill to desperately succeed, but after the defeat to Bolton; it's hard to see where the Black Cats go next.
Another cold, dark evening at the Stadium Of Light, and another example of Sunderland meekly tumbling out of a cup competition at the hands of a Championship team.
Back in October it was Middlesbrough in the league cup and last night Bolton Wanderers bossed us out of the FA Cup, putting paid to dreams of a romantic return to Wembley on the 40th anniversary of our last cup win.
As a Sunderland fan, this season has been one of the most frustrating in living memory. Our seasons usually fall into one of two categories – encouraging or depressing, but this one has been a hotch-potch, consisting mostly of the depression with the odd encouraging glimmer.
Three weeks ago, we beat the monied-up Premier League champions, yet since then we’ve twice failed to conquer the team that is currently 16th in the division below us. Sums us up perfectly.
It’s not that hard to see what’s gone wrong – we’re a bit wonky in almost every area of the pitch. Our creative players have all failed to create on a regular basis. Adam Johnson has taken months to get going since moving from Manchester City, James McClean is suffering from ‘second season syndrome’, while Stephane Sessegnon remains a mercurial spirit, as likely to go missing in a match as he is to do something game-changing.
Meanwhile, behind those creative types, our central midfield has been lacking in bite, with Lee Cattermole still enduring spells out of the side – only this season it’s because of injuries rather than suspensions. Our other willing midfield triers Jack Colback, Seb Larsson and David Vaughan don’t have the physical power that is required for their role and no one knows if Craig Gardner works best as a midfielder or a full back.
As for the defence, well it’s helpful that Simon Mignolet is playing out of his skin in goal, because the back four are never far away from some clanging error or other.
Martin O’Neill is at a crossroads – we absolutely have to find some consistency and get some more points on the board if the season isn’t going to peter out, or worse end in a desperate relegation battle.
For a change, the manager is looking to recruit from abroad. Alfred N’Diyae has already been brought in this month, and looks to be the tall, powerful central midfielder that we need. Hopefully his skills will match his physicality.
There’s been more strengthening going on at the back as well – giant Senegalese centre half Kader Mangane has arrived on loan with a view to a permanent deal in the summer if he impresses.
Meanwhile, talk of Swansea’s Danny Graham returning to his native north east isn’t going away, and his arrival would mean that O’Neill has strengthened his team throughout its spine – exactly what is needed.
The fans have been patient, and yearn for boyhood Black Cats fan O’Neill to succeed at the club. If the players can find their form at the same time, we’ll all be looking up the table rather than looking down, and a good end to the season could provide the base we need to challenge for a cup next season instead of capitulating against lesser sides as we have done this year.