There have been no half-day measures for Sunderland's players in the course of their revival under Mick McCarthy this season. Morning training sessions have been complemented by afternoons spent mastering the finer core-strengthening points of Pilates and the noble art of pugilism. It is probably just as well, because McCarthy's thoroughly conditioned men could be striving to land a knock-out blow against Roy Keane in the FA Cup final in Cardiff next month.
That Sunderland, the Premiership pushovers of last season, happen to be 90 minutes away from a Cup final bout with Manchester United bears testimony to the managerial skill of the man whose preparation methods the fulminating Keane brought into question before his Saipan walk-out on the eve of the World Cup two years ago. Just as he worked wonders with his squad of limited talents on the international stage, knocking out the Dutch in the qualifiers and outplaying Germany and Spain on the way to the very brink of the quarter-finals, McCarthy has transformed Sunderland from a club going nowhere (other than in the same doomed direction as Sheffield Wednesday) into potential achievers who have the Premiership within their sights again and European football beckoning tantalisingly on the horizon.
If McCarthy's men beat Millwall in their semi-final at Old Trafford today, they will have a place in the Uefa Cup next season, as well as a date in the Cup final at the Millennium Stadium on 22 May. Should they make it, Gary Breen would stand out as a shining light for football's version of McCarthyism. His last visit to Old Trafford was also for an FA Cup tie. He was at the heart of defence in the West Ham team not so much hammered as smithereened by Manchester United in the fourth round in January last year. It was to be his last match in the starting line-up for the club.
The former Coventry man was only granted one substitute appearance before being frozen out of the first-team picture by Glenn Roeder. It precipitated an unhappy end to an unhappy season with the Hammers for the native Londoner. He looked a pale shadow of the player who had shone for the Republic of Ireland, and McCarthy, in Japan and Korea the previous summer - who had shone so brightly, in fact, that both Barcelona and Roma showed an interest in signing him. Everton also wanted Breen, but he chose West Ham, in the expectation that their seventh-place finish in the 2001-02 season would be a springboard to European qualification.
"I don't really want to talk about West Ham now," Breen said during a lunchtime break at Sunderland's training ground, the Academy of Light. "I know why it went wrong there, but I'm not about to tell you exactly why it went wrong. I'm not doing anything different here, playing-wise. I'm just being picked.
"I just want to forget about West Ham. I knew relatively early - very early, actually - that it wasn't the right move for me there. And I knew very early here that Sunderland was the right move. I had to rebuild my reputation."
Breen has done just that, looking every inch of his 6ft 1in frame as assured as he was when steering the Republic to their 1-1 draw with Germany in Ibaraki or when lashing home the right-foot volley against Saudi Arabia that helped take the Irish through to the last 16. The 30-year-old has also brought a touch of the Beckenbauer to a defence that had hitherto been more Billy Smart's Circus.
"I only came here because Mick was here," Breen confessed. "I was aware of how big Sunderland's potential was, and that they should be in the Premiership, but I came because of Mick. People looking in from the outside probably thought Sunderland were in freefall, but I knew Mick and I knew that was never going to happen. I never thought it was a gamble coming here. With Mick, you always know what you've got to do. I enjoy playing for him."
That much is obvious. It is also more than the captain of Manchester United would ever admit to. Not that McCarthy himself looks back in anger or frustration at the volatile events in Saipan two years ago.
He even smiled when the name of his nemesis was raised in the press room at the Sunderland training ground. Was this the happiest he'd been since the Roy Keane incident, he was asked.
"Somebody owes me money now because you got the question in," McCarthy replied, laughing heartily. "I enjoyed all that as well," he continued, referring to the entirety of his tenure as Ireland manager. "You mention him. I had him as a player for a long time and there was only bit that went pear-shaped. That's all, in my opinion.
"I enjoyed that job immensely, every single bit of it. I had a tough couple of weeks at the World Cup, which anybody would have found tough. It was an interesting two weeks, to say the least, but managing Ireland was still wonderful. I think when you've gone through that it helps you to learn to look after yourself."
It could be that the Sunderland manager has also been learning to look after himself in the ring with his players. It might come in handy if he shares the same bill as Roy Keane in Cardiff on 22 May.
- More about:
- Cardiff City Fc
- Mick Mccarthy
- Premier League
- Sheffield Wednesday
- Sunderland FC
- West Ham United