O'Neill to fulfil his destiny in North-east

Should Martin O'Neill's first Sunderland team-sheet reveal wholesale changes at home to Blackburn, it might be better not to read too much into them. Nicklas Bendtner, John O'Shea, Michael Turner and Phil Bardsley are all injury doubts, and Lee Cattermole, the card-prone captain, is suspended.

In his absence, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan could form a midfield axis not seen since the end of September, as the hosts seek only a third home win since Rovers lost on their last visit to Wearside, on New Year's Day.

"I haven't decided on the team yet, I have to wait and see how the injuries clear up," O'Neill revealed. "Over the next couple of weeks, with injuries being the main source of concern, there will be changes. There's a run of matches around Christmas, so changes will probably be natural more than anything." O'Neill could hand a first start to Ryan Noble, the England youth forward, who has claimed three hat-tricks in his last five reserve games.

The mere presence of O'Neill will galvanise the spirit at the Stadium of Light, on and off the field. Fans have a manager in charge of their team whose boyhood affection for Sunderland has been well known in these parts for some time and who has a passion for giving the great North-east underachievers the kind of makeover he effected at Wycombe, Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa.

He would have taken the job in 2006 were it not for the fact that his wife, Geraldine, was recovering from cancer at the time.

Asked whether he thought it was his "destiny" to manage Sunderland, he said: "It's maybe overblown, but I'm nearly going to say 'yes' to that now that I'm in the job. I didn't want to have prolonged discussions with Mr Short [chairman, Ellis Short] in case he changed his mind. I was incredibly excited to get the opportunity and I didn't want to ruin it."

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm

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