Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill draws on darker days to see light at end of tunnel following Aston Villa loss
Sunderland 0 Aston Villa 1
Martin O'Neill has been this way before: in charge of a team struggling to fire, with the natives getting restless.
After his stuttering side endured another blank afternoon, extending their depressing run to one win in 17 Premier League matches with a 1-0 home defeat against Aston Villa, the Sunderland manager was asked whether he was in the midst of "one of the most trying times" of his managerial career. He shook his head and recalled decidedly darker days at Leicester.
"When I first went to Leicester City I found that really difficult," O'Neill said. " The crowd became very anxious and very, very impatient. But we were able to turn it round and have a really good time for a number of years."
Things were so bad for O'Neill in his early days at Leicester, back in 1996, there was a demonstration by disgruntled fans after one game and he received a mountain of abusive mail. He kept every letter and contacted his critics when his transformed team won promotion, asking them what they thought of him now.
The Sunderland supporters have yet to turn against O'Neill but frustration is threatening to turn to disillusionment. Saturday's insipid performance – featuring just one shot on target against a Villa side who stemmed their own poor run courtesy of Gabriel Agbonlahor's 57th-minute volley – hardly inspired confidence ahead of a trip to Goodison Park this Saturday.
"This is a trying time, of course, but we'll come through it," O'Neill said. "I have belief in the team. We have good players who are lacking maybe a bit a confidence but we'll come good.
"It's been a difficult week for us, obviously, losing against Middlesbrough [in the Capital One Cup] and then not scoring here. But we can change it. We'll get there. We have the character in the side to come through. We need to score some goals and get the creative players off and running. "
Sunderland have scored only one goal in their last five matches – courtesy of Newcastle's Demba Ba – and their lack of creativity has been reflected in Adam Johnson's abject form on the flanks. The £10m signing from Manchester City is struggling to deliver the crosses that Stephen Fletcher craves. He is clearly suffering from a lack of confidence
"He's found it tough going," O'Neill acknowledged. "But in the course of time he'll be a hit with the fans here."
Sunderland: MIGNOLET 6/10, BARDSLEY 7, O’SHEA 6, CUELLAR 6, ROSE 6, LARSSON 6, GARDNER 5, CATTERMOLE 7, JOHNSON 4, SESSEGNON 4, FLETCHER 5
Aston Villa: GUZAN 6, LOWTON 6, CLARK 6, VLAAR 6, BENNETT n/a, AGBONLAHOR 6, WEIMANN 6, WESTWOOD 7, BANNAN 6, BENTEKE 7
Goal: Aston Villa Agbonlahor 57.
Subs: Sund McClean 6 (Gardner, 67), Saha 5 (Sessegnon, 67), Campbell (Bardsley, 80). AV Lichaj 6 (Bennett, 11), Stevens (Lichaj, 71), Holman (Weimann, 86). Booked: Sund Bardsley, Fletcher. AV Lichaj, Clark, Benteke. MoM Benteke. Match rating 3/10. Poss: Sund 54% AV 46%. Attempts on target: Sund 1 AV 6. Ref M Jones (Cheshire). Att 41,515.
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