It takes a brave man to question Roy Keane but British football has produced few braver than Stuart Pearce. When he talks, even Sunderland's self-assured manager listens and if the Black Cats do preserve their Premiership status this season then a debt of gratitude may be owed to the former Newcastle United full-back.
"There are people who call themselves professionals but in Stuart Pearce we had a player who gave meaning to the word," said Keane in his 2002 autobiography. "He was my role model."
Hence, when Pearce paid an impromptu visit to Sunderland's Academy of Light last week, to observe his former protégé putting the club's first-team squad through its paces, his views mattered more than most.
"Someone whose opinion I trust said he had been to lots of clubs and not seen that intensity and that's something I have to take on board," explained Keane, after his lethargic team had snatched a draw from the depths of defeat. "I'd hate my players to walk through training but it's something I'm prepared to look at.
"I'm not stupid enough to believe me and the staff have got all the answers and if someone you trust says they've not seen that level of intensity at other clubs it's something to think about."
Keane has been crippled by injuries and inconsistency this season and Pearce believes a punishing training schedule lies at the root of both problems. Certainly Sunderland laboured through the opening 45 minutes of a fixture they appeared destined to lose and only Fulham's profligacy prevented a damaging defeat in front of the Premier League's loudest supporters.
"To make [training] more intense for a shorter time might work for us when it comes to games," conceded the athletic and admirably frank Sunderland defender, Nyron Nosworthy. "Every player is different – some like to work hard and some might want to take it easy before a match. I think [our training regime] might have taken its toll."
Their form may be fitful and their bodies fragile but when it comes to match fitness few teams can better Sunderland. Keane might envisage long-term gain from listening to his mentor's advice but the fact remains that the Black Cats are the masters of endurance.
When the Sunderland forward, Kenwyne Jones, cancelled out a spectacular first-half free-kick from the Fulham midfielder, Simon Davies, five minutes from time few home supporters were surprised. It was the fifth time this season Keane's players have scored in the final 10 minutes.
"It helps if you have a 6ft 5in centre forward because every time the ball goes into the box you have a chance," said Lawrie Sanchez, Fulham's downbeat manager, after Jones had headed home his fourth goal in six games. "If Sunderland didn't have him they wouldn't be the same.
"There are similarities with [Didier] Drogba. Jones is a big man, good in the air and an all-action player. But it is a bit early in his career to make that comparison."
Goals: Davies (32) 0-1; Jones (86) 1-1.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Halford, Nosworthy, Higginbotham, Collins; Leadbitter, Etuhu (Stokes 61), Miller, Wallace (Harte 71); Jones, Chopra (Murphy 61). Substitutes not used: Ward (gk), Connolly.
Fulham (4-4-2): Niemi; Omozusi, Hughes, Stefanovic, Bocanegra; Davies, Davis, Murphy, Dempsey; Kamara (Ki-Hyeon 82), Healy (Kuqi 69). Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Smertin, Ashton.
Referee: A Marriner (W Midlands).
Booked: Sunderland Halford; Fulham Dempsey, Davies, Stefanovic, Bocanegra.
Sent off: Halford.
Man of the match: Simon Davies.
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