Mr Motivator: So, exactly how HAS O'Neill turned Sunderland into Wonderland
It was a small gesture but it was a significant moment for Jack Colback, and summed up the impact Martin O’Neill has made on Sunderland.
The new manager had just finished acknowledging the drenched and delighted travelling support at Wigan’s DW Stadium on Tuesday night when he turned to make his way to the warmth of the away dressing room.
Infectious: Martin O'Neill's impact at Sunderland has been remarkable
And then he spotted Colback, walking
alone, lost in the delirium of Sunderland’s best away win for four
years. O’Neill hopped over and gave the 22-year-old midfielder a hug,
whispering in his ear as he did so. On Thursday the graduate from
Sunderland’s academy signed a new two-year extension.
‘There’s been a lot of that,’ said one Sunderland player. ‘He has taken all the players to one side, put his arm round them, and just made them feel good about themselves. He doesn’t pick out any negatives at all. He just tells everyone they are brilliant, and to keep doing the right things. He has something special. No one is quite sure what it is, but he has it.’
O’Neill has not — as yet — introduced any innovative changes to the players’ diets, but he has insisted on them reporting for duty later than the previous regime, especially on match days, because he doesn’t want them sitting around, tensing up.
The new Sunderland are all about energy and action.
Training sessions have, as if mimicking the man himself, a new intensity. This is evident at the club’s Academy of Light, the expanse of custom-built training pitches complete with canteen, gym and swimming pool.
The Northern Irishman has been on the pitches every day. This hands-on coaching with new assistant Steve Walford, goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh and fitness coach Jim Henry is slightly different to his past dealings at Aston Villa and Celtic, where he tended to leave the day-to-day team training to others. Perhaps it is a sign he is rejuvenated by his 18-month absence from football.
An amazing transformation: O'Neill has breathed new life into Sunderland following Steve Bruce's costly, stale reign
He is also managing a team which, he has admitted, are close to his heart, bringing much-needed energy and enthusiasm to a club which was in serious danger of becoming embroiled in a relegation fight again.
Arguably the easiest decision O’Neill had to make soon after joining Sunderland was to give captain Lee Cattermole an extended rest.
The 23-year-old former Middlesbrough and Wigan midfielder was suspended for the new man’s first game, and was disappointed but perhaps not surprised to be left out for the second one, a 1-0 defeat at Tottenham.
Hands on: O'Neill embraces Lee Cattermole (left) and Wes Brown
And when news broke that the skipper and team-mate Nicklas Bendtner had been arrested, after marking O’Neill’s media unveiling with some allegedly over-zealous celebrations in Newcastle, it looked certain that Cattermole would be left out even longer, and the armband given to John O’Shea permanently.
Instead, Cattermole was taken to one side and assured his future was safe. In the past two games, he has put in his two best performances in red and white. And the armband still sat proudly round his upper arm.
He told Sportsmail: ‘The gaffer’s given everyone a real confidence. A new manager would always give you a lift in situations like we were in but maybe not as well as under this manager. He is very intelligent and he has a massive passion. It has shown on the pitch.’
Results game: Ji Dong-won snatches three points against leaders Manchester City
O’Neill has emphasised the need for a clean slate, and proved it with actions as well as his wise words. As well as Cattermole, he restored Titus Bramble to the first team after taking in a windswept reserves win over Manchester United.
He also recalled Matt Kilgallon after 18 months, he handed James McClean his first start and asked Craig Gardner to play at right back.
All Bruce signings of course. But all responding to Martin O’Neill’s magic.
THE BIG SHOCKS OVER THE FESTIVE FESTIVE PERIOD
There have been plenty of surprises in the Premier League over the Christmas and New Year period, but no team has fared better than O'Neill's Sunderland.