Seb Larsson: 'You should see O'Neill when we win. He is all hugs'
Sunderland's Seb Larsson opens up to Martin Hardy about his Mr Motivator manager and the joy of his early days at Arsenal despite bouts of homesickness
Clever. Seb Larsson uses the adjective seven times to describe his new manager.
Each time the articulate Sunderland midfielder is looking for a more original description for the man at the helm of a remarkable turnaround. Each time we arrive back at the same word.
"He puts little things into your head in a very, very clever way," says Larsson. "It's hard to remember an actual example but he might joke about something and everyone is laughing and then you go home and you sit down and you go: 'Hold on a second, there was something in there which was a serious bit.' He put that across in a way so you don't forget. He puts little thoughts in your head and he knows they're going to stick."
It is eight games since Martin O'Neill took over at the Stadium of Light. Larsson caught a bit of the unveiling on his television at home. O'Neill had already met his new players twice by then, once to watch them in training hours before he signed his three-year deal. A second at half-time during the defeat to Wolves, officially his first game in charge, when he left affairs in the hands of Eric Black.
The third time, Larsson sat on his sofa and watched O'Neill stress that he had never once mentioned a January transfer budget with Ellis Short, the Sunderland owner and chairman, during his talks to succeed Steve Bruce. He wanted the job, he stressed, and he wanted to work with the players at the club.
It was his first psychological attempt to lift a demoralised set of footballers. "You're interested in knowing his thoughts and what lies ahead of you," adds Larsson. "He has shown a lot of faith in us. That has been good for the players. He told us straight away we were more than capable of climbing the table, and that we have a good enough squad to do that.
"One of the biggest things he will have looked at when he took the job was confidence. We have a good squad and a good bunch of lads that can play decent football. Confidence was very low after struggling early on, he probably identified that as important.
"When a manager gets to leave his job, let's be honest, a big responsibility lies on the players. We have not got enough points. You have to realise that and you have to do better. He told us that as well. He is a very, very clever man. He could have come in and blasted us and that might have taken us further down. After a week, or a couple of weeks, you start realising that he is clever."
O'Neill has used his full armoury of motivational tactics to transform a football club. Since he has sat in the dugout on his return to management after a 15-month sabbatical, Sunderland have won five games from seven, losing only to title-chasing Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Tuning into his players' minds has been the key.
"He will watch training and come over and have a word with a player. He doesn't talk to me individually every day as a manager, but he has had a few words and he sees the other players. He talks to us after games as well. You saw that with Lee Cattermole after the Manchester City game when he came on to the pitch to congratulate him. I suppose it is about building a good relationship between the players and the manager, which he has definitely done so far.
"The way I have described him so far is the best way, about him being clever and putting his thoughts across in a clever way. It is the one thing that has really stuck in my head and made me really think he is doing the right thing.
"He has come in with loads of enthusiasm for the game and a lot of energy. At the same time, he told us a big responsibility lies with the players. We have to step up to the plate and win some games.
"So far he's calm before a match. Before he speaks he has a message he wants to get across and he doesn't shout for the sake of shouting. He makes you listen to what he has to say because I think he always has a point that he wants to put across to you. Of course, we're playing a lot better. We're more confident as a team and with that you play better. If it's a game that is tight with 10 minutes to go, rather than worrying about losing the game, we are now like: 'Come on, we can win this'. After we have won games, you see how much it means to him in the dressing room. He has been right in the middle of the celebrating. That is brilliant, of course, when you see what it means to your manager. He is all hugs then."
A hug might well have done for Larsson 10 years ago, when he landed in London from his home in Eskilstuna in Sweden, a city with a population that could fit in the Emirates each week. He was then one of Arsène Wenger's young hopefuls, leaving his parents, his older brother and his girlfriend for London and the digs that would be his new home. It was almost too much.
"It was a tough time," Larsson admits. "The first six months was very, very tough. There were quite a few times when I thought: 'Nah, this is not for me. It might be time to go back home.' There were a lot of late-night phone calls back to my family.
"I definitely remember saying it to my dad: 'Can I come home for a bit?' It was for five or 10 minutes and then you went to sleep and woke up and thought: 'It's a better day.'
"When I was in work in training, everything was fine and brilliant, I enjoyed myself, it was great and I enjoyed the football, I enjoyed being on the football ground training. It was more when you go home and you close the door and you're lonely, and you're used to having your family and friends around and doing things all day and all of a sudden you were sitting in big London on your own.
"It was a big change. I'm not going to lie. You realise very quickly you're not as old or mature as you think you are when you're 16."
Larsson did not go home.
Three years later, he was called into the Arsenal first-team squad for the first time, for a Champions League tie against Panathinaikos in Athens. It is a reassuring story.
"I can still remember it," he says. "I was so excited at the whole trip; about everything, the hotel, the meals, everything, and then getting to the stadium and seeing your shirt lying there, with 'Larsson 39' on the back, and all the other shirts there. I was just over the moon. I can still remember it, walking into the dressing room, all excited about seeing my shirt but I didn't want to show that. I had a peek, though, I looked at my name on my shirt."
The name Larsson, however, did not appear on the back of an Arsenal shirt enough. He left for Birmingham on loan and then made the move permanent, signing for Steve Bruce for the first time.
"After I started playing regularly I couldn't go back. Sometimes you have to be honest and say it's time to move on. There were no regrets, none at all. My dream was to break into the Arsenal team and be a regular, but I came to a stage in my career and then I started playing for another club. You have to hold your hands up and say I wasn't good enough at the time and move on and make sure you become good enough later in your career."
Larsson still looks a youthful 26. His young family have settled in the North-east. He admits Sunderland's form has got him smiling again at home. There is regret for Bruce, who lost his job after a defeat at the Stadium of Light. "Of course, you feel responsible and you feel bad. Steve is a guy I like and had huge respect for. The responsibility lies with the players. It was frustrating it did not click quicker."
But then Larsson knows the cyclical nature of football better than most, winning last season's Carling Cup final for Birmingham against Arsenal, his former employers.
"The League Cup was one of those things I will never forget," Larsson adds. "It is good you have that in the back of your head when you play Peterborough away [as Sunderland did in the FA Cup last week]. You know you can get to the final and it's possible to win it.
"You dream about winning cups when you are young and to win your first one is special; at Wembley and against my old club as well. It all worked out. My family were over. It was nice to have them there. I think they enjoyed it just as much as I did.
"Every now and then I talk with my dad talk about that time when I was 16 and homesick and we laugh at it now. I'm sure he's mentioned it a few times, but I just pretend not to listen."
Larsson is back in the capital today to face Chelsea. With six goals from 20 games following his summer move, he has been the pick of a team that has catapulted itself from a grim relegation fight to a possible top-10 finish.
"I wanted to take the next step in my career and for me that was to join a bigger club," he adds. "One that has everything in place and is ready to go places with a big fan base. All those things fitted in with Sunderland. I heard a lot of positive things about the club, and what football means to people up here. That is one of the things that made me want to come here. It felt the right place to come.
"Of course, Chelsea have exceptional talent. With the players they have, it will never be an easy place to go. If we play to our best, you never know. We will go into the game with confidence.
"We are capable of getting something, but at the same time, if we don't play to our best, we're in for a hard afternoon."
They could be the manager's words. Clever.
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