It has taken time, but Adam Johnson believes the patience shown by Martin O'Neill in Sunderland's flair players is finally paying dividends.
O'Neill loyally stood by Johnson, Stéphane Sessègnon and James McClean through a troubled spell earlier in the season. Johnson, the £10m summer signing from Manchester City, took time to settle at his new club, not helped by injury. McClean and Sessègnon failed to spark and it was left to Steven Fletcher to plough a lone furrow as Sunderland slipped down the Premier League.
O'Neill doggedly resisted calls for change and four wins in their last seven Premier League games, including Saturday's 3-0 victory against West Ham, in which, after Seb Larssson had scored early, both Johnson and McClean found the net, has brought vindication.
"We're looking to the top half, not below," said Johnson. "Let's see if we can forget about the teams below us now. I think getting to know each other better could be one of the things. I think it's been hard with everyone coming in. It's been a massive change for the club. There was a lot of expectancy on the club and I think we took a bit of time, but if we can keep performing like that we won't be too worried.
"We looked threatening and we cut them open so many times; everything clicked for us. It took us a bit of time with new players but I think you're starting to see the benefits now of having a few games with each other. The most important thing is we created chances. If we're creating them, they don't mind so much people missing them.
"I think I've started more games for Sunderland probably than I did in the whole of last season. I think that tells you the story. My game is definitely benefiting from that. I feel much better physically."
Manager O'Neill added: "I possibly have persevered with one or two players. In my defence, maybe we didn't have that many alternatives. Sessègnon was excellent for us [on Saturday] without scoring a goal and Steven Fletcher, without scoring a goal, led the line brilliantly. We played very well. What is the difference? Deep down, I'm not exactly sure. There was more confidence about the team and that seemed to permeate to the crowd as well."
Senegal defender Kader Mangane will have a medical ahead of a proposed season-long loan move to Sunderland from Rennes.
Allardyce: Tomkins staying put
Sam Allardyce has admitted the defensive injury crisis at West Ham means he will not let James Tomkins leave during the January transfer window.
Tomkins has again been linked with a possible move to Newcastle but Allardyce – already missing defenders George McCartney and Joey O'Brien – lost his first-choice centre-half James Collins to a hamstring injury in Saturday's 3-0 defeat at Sunderland.
"We have never been in a position to sell anybody and we don't want to," said the West Ham manager. "We want to increase the size of the squad, not decrease it and sell anybody. It was less likely James was going to leave in the first place, even less likely now.
"Now we only have two centre-halves left, James and Winston Reid, and we have a 19-year-old at full-back because we have no one else, so I need two in if I am honest. I have been looking for a left-back for the last 10 days."
Allardyce revealed he may renew his efforts to sign Martin Olsson, the Blackburn full-back. Rovers have so far rejected an offer believed to be around £3m.