McCarthy sets new mission for his superheroes

Sunderland 2 - Leicester City 1
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The Independent Football

The problem with missions, as any superhero worth his salt would testify, is, as soon as one has reached a successful conclusion, there invariably seems to be an even tougher one to take its place.

The problem with missions, as any superhero worth his salt would testify, is, as soon as one has reached a successful conclusion, there invariably seems to be an even tougher one to take its place.

As Sunderland's players celebrated the club's return to the top flight and their manager Mick McCarthy attempted to sift through the 71 messages of congratulations on his phone, the attention of many had already shifted to the fresh challenges which lie ahead.

The Black Cats secured a return to the Premiership with a nervy, yet highly entertaining victory over Leicester City. Their 18-year-old debutant goalkeeper, Ben Alnwick, kept them in the contest early on, before Marcus Stewart and Steve Caldwell's goals cancelled out Alan Maybury's strike.

For a club which, only two years ago, fell through the Premiership trapdoor with the lowest number of points ever, paralysed by debt, and whose own supporters were so disillusioned with the demise that less than half renewed their season tickets, promotion represents a remarkable achievement.

"I was tainted by those games at the end of the Premiership," McCarthy reflected, in the afterglow of an achievement he described as his biggest in the game. "I took the criticism then and I will thoroughly enjoy the praise we receive for getting the club promoted." McCarthy was still smarting from the humiliation of losing those first nine games in charge when the mass exodus of players began. When the Black Cats missed out on promotion last season, losing a penalty shoot-out to Crystal Palace in a play-off semi-final, he lost even more established stars.

But, out of the rubble, he has constructed a new team, trawling the lower leagues and Premiership reserve teams for emerging young talent, such as Dean Whitehead, Stephen Elliott, Liam Lawrence and Andy Welsh, along with free transfers like Caldwell and Carl Robinson. It was, as the former Republic of Ireland coach admits, a gamble, but it is one which has paid a rich dividend.

It is difficult to argue with Sunderland's right to a Premiership return. An eight-game win streak last month included a 1-0 win at Wigan, while last weekend's trip to Ipswich brought a 2-2 draw from a game they deserved to win. Significantly, the Black Cats won two and drew two of the four games with their nearest rivals.

Yet, even as the memories of Stewart's expert finish from Chris Brown's pass and Caldwell's winner, a second-half header from Lawrence's corner, still burned brightly, McCarthy admitted his attention had already turned to the problem of keeping his side in the top flight next season.

Sunderland are still hindered by a debt of around £38m. While promotion could be worth as much as £25m, much of this will be swallowed up by the club's overdraft.

The board has a choice. It can invest heavily in players in the hope of avoiding relegation, or can adopt a more cautious approach, pay off some of the debt and hope McCarthy can work wonders again on a tight budget, safe in the knowledge that the club will be secure financially, even if they do immediately return to the Championship.

"I've no idea how much money I will have to spend," McCarthy said. "We want to have a good drink first and enjoy what we have achieved; it's been a magnificent effort considering what this club has been through. But I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been thinking about the Premiership for weeks now. We've got that challenge ahead but, for now, I want to bring this season to an end by proving we are the best team in this division and that means going up as champions."

Goals: Maybury (5) 0-1; Stewart (23) 1-1; Caldwell (60) 2-1.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Alnwick; Wright, Breen, Caldwell, Arca; Lawrence, Whitehead, Robinson, Welsh (Collins, 71); Stewart (Elliott, 81), Brown (Deane, 77). Substitutes not used: Ingham (gk), Thornton.

Leicester City (4-4-2): Walker; Kenton, McCarthy, Dublin, Maybury; Hughes, Gudjonsson (Williams, 66), Nalis (Stearman, 69), Tiatto; Connolly, De Vries (Moore, 25). Substitutes not used: Hirschfield (gk), Gillespie.

Referee: M Jones (Cheshire).

Booked: Sunderland Wright, Robinson, Brown; Leicester City Gudjonsson, Dublin, Stearman.

Man of the match: Arca.

Attendance: 34,815.