O'Neill set for a tilt at his final frontier

 

Martin O'Neill, the Sunderland manager, will do all he can to address the one glaring absence on his CV as he heads into his latest FA Cup campaign.

The 59-year-old has never reached the final of the world's oldest club competition as either a player or a manager despite a trophy-laden career.

Even at the height of his playing days under Brian Clough as Nottingham Forest took Europe by storm, the FA Cup was a final too far and that is something he would dearly love to address as he sends the 1973 winners into third-round battle at mid-table Championship side Peterborough tomorrow.

O'Neill said: "As a player, I never won it. We were in the quarter-finals three or four times with Nottingham Forest, one in particular in 1974 when we played at Newcastle and the crowd invaded the pitch.

"I don't know whether Mr Clough took it all that seriously or not at the time – of course he did, but you always felt that the League was the big thing.

"With Aston Villa, we reached the semi-final two years ago and were beaten by Chelsea. We had a couple of rather rough refereeing decisions, but doesn't everybody?

"But I have never reached the final, I have never been in it. It's the only competition, as a player, that Forest didn't win."

Clough, of course, had another chance to complete the set when Forest earned a final with Tottenham in 1991, but he finished a loser in a game made famous by Paul Gascoigne's premature departure on a stretcher.

O'Neill recalled: "I am sure he would have loved that opportunity in the early '90s against Tottenham. Maybe he thought that was going to be his day."

Sunderland launch this Cup mission on the back of a remarkable Premier League resurgence under their new manager. Of the six League games for which the Ulsterman has been in charge, they have won four, including a shock 1-0 victory over leaders Manchester City, on the way to a points haul of 13 from a possible 18.

That has moved them into 10th place in the table, eight points clear of the relegation zone, and while survival remains O'Neill's priority he insists it does not preclude a tilt at Cup glory.

He said: "If you had said to me here on the opening day that we would have had 24 points on the board at this stage, I would have been ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic with that.

"People talk about the 10th position – the position doesn't concern me as much as the number of points we have.

"Of course, you still have targets and we have, but to try to stay in the Premier League is still, I have to say this, the most vital thing. It's not a matter of keeping people's feet on the ground, it's just the reality of it.

"You would have to say in this modern day, whether you like it or don't, the Premier League seems to be the be-all and end-all of things and staying in the Premier League would obviously be the top priority. That's not to say now that you cannot go out and attempt to do your very best in this competition, and that's what we are going to try to do."

Meanwhile, amid speculation that the Benin international Stéphane Sessègnon is unsettled on Wearside and that Arsenal could be ready to move for midfielder Kieran Richardson this month, O'Neill, who confirmed there has been no contact from the Gunners, revealed he has no plans for a clear-out. He said: "I obviously want to keep players at the football club. If there is anyone desperately unhappy and there is nothing we can do about that and something arrives in January, then obviously I will give that some consideration.

"But the main point would be trying to stabilise things rather than letting people go. That would be my general view of things."

Meanwhile, Newcastle will begin life without striker Demba Ba and midfielder Cheick Tioté in today's FA Cup third-round game with Blackburn at St James' Park. The pair will be missing for several weeks after heading off on African Nations Cup duty with Senegal and the Ivory Coast respectively.

The Cup game comes too soon for midfielder Danny Guthrie, who is expected to return to training after a groin injury on Monday, while Peter Lovenkrands (calf), Steven Taylor (Achilles) and Sylvain Marveaux (groin) remain on the sidelines.

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