Martin O'Neill: 'Sunderland need me now more than ever'

Manager is key to club's top flight survival and upbeat about their chances

Martin O'Neill spent Wednesday morning at a Sunderland supporters' forum. It is yet another time on Wearside to rally the troops. The football club he has managed for almost 16 months is in serious trouble. The fans were generous. There was humour, but its colour was black.

"They told me they expected a Sunderland player to return from the international break with an injury," revealed O'Neill. It has been that kind of season.

That injury turned out to be to their most important player, Steven Fletcher. On the club website later that afternoon, it was confirmed that Fletcher would miss the rest of the season. He may yet need an operation on the ankle ligaments he damaged during Scotland's defeat to Wales at Hampden Park last week. A third of Sunderland's Premier League goals this season have been scored by Fletcher. Humour Wednesday, Mournday Thursday.

They are a sorry set of statistics those supporters are struggling to digest; one point from the last seven Premier League games, four home wins all season, four points above a relegation place having played a game more, and Manchester United to face at the Stadium of Light tomorrow. Not to mention that it's a Manchester United side so incensed by the celebrations of the home fans at that same ground when they lost their league title last season on that dramatic final day, that Wayne Rooney wrote about it in his autobiography. Then they travel to Chelsea. Then they face Newcastle.

Sunderland have been relegated from the Premier League on three occasions. This is their sixth season without demotion but the scars of previous failures run deep among a support that has just about managed to retain its patience during what O'Neill himself has called a disappointing campaign.

That, however, was not his tone yesterday, and there is good reason for that. O'Neill, like last season, is Sunderland's best hope of survival.

"I accept that, absolutely," he said when asked if he was needed now more than ever. "Being downbeat? Listen, if we lose the games, I cannot be smiling within half an hour of the game. By the time I have analysed it, done the press conference, had a small talk with the opposition manager, for an hour or two you have thought about the game, but then you have to get yourself up. You have to.

"I am what I am. If you are expecting me to step in to a press conference after performing in the manner we did against Norwich and be jocular then you would tell me I needed my head examined. As a player I always concerned myself with losing matches, same as a manager, but it cannot last for ever. I don't know who was saying I was downbeat. That's their opinion.

"It's tough at this stage. That's the nature of the game. As a manager nowadays you can be judged on any given 10 minutes, but remaining upbeat is actually in my nature. Being down is not in my nature. I'm looking forward. What we have to do now for these big matches is to play with the same determination, gusto, that the team should be capable of playing with.

"We have a battle on but we have some great games that we can look forward to rather than shy away from. I actually think the fans have come in big numbers here to support. We have not given them a great deal to support all season. They are entitled to be frustrated."

O'Neill has repeatedly attempted to delay the necessary dissection of what has gone wrong this season. Fletcher, at £12 million has worked. Adam Johnson, at £10m, has shown flashes of the ability that took him into the England squad but needs consistency. Danny Graham, whose importance in the future of Sunderland is now huge, will have to find goals. Alfred N'Diaye, a £3.5m January signing, looks raw.

Others have came on loan (Danny Rose and Kader Mangane) and for nothing (Carlos Cuellar). The owner, Ellis Short, wanted the revolving door that had been spun by Steve Bruce and Roy Keane during their tenures to stop. It has, and there is frustration from the current manager at that decision. It is still not his team, but with the club having recorded a loss of £27m, it is one he must keep in the division.

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