Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill in optimistic mood ahead of Manchester United trip

Black Cats have struggled all season

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill has challenged his side to play with more freedom against Barclays Premier League leaders Manchester United following their morale-boosting win over Reading.

The Black Cats boss celebrated a year in charge of the club with a 3-0 victory over the Royals on Tuesday night which lifted his side out of the relegation zone.

It was Sunderland's third league win of the season was very timely ahead of a tricky set of fixtures which will see them take on Man Utd, Manchester City, Southampton and Tottenham before the New Year.

However, O'Neill is refusing to see the next run of games as a barren patch when it comes to points, especially after their performance earlier this week.

"Of course winning matches is very important but it's given everyone that confidence boost and hopefully we will be able to continue that between now and the Christmas period and into the New Year," O'Neill told reporters.

"We have a real battle on of course against Manchester United but we can go there with some confidence because of the result during the week and actually go and play with some freedom as well.

"Someone was suggesting a few days ago that these are not our battles but that's not the point but that's too easy.

"We have to go and compete every single week in this league and I don't think you can start to allocate points here and take points away there. Go and play."

If Sunderland were to win at Old Trafford tomorrow it would be the first time they have done so since 1968.

A victory would provide another huge boost for the Northern Irishman, although he revealed he is not worried about his future on Wearside following a poor run of results.

"I haven't gone out publicly and said every single day that I've got support (from the owner)," O'Neill said.

"I've never felt the real need to do this. You can say what you want. I'm in the business of trying to win some football games and I think with my record in the game, I wouldn't have survived for so long if I hadn't managed to come through some sticky periods.

"This is a tough time for us but it's pretty obvious it was going to be a tough time for us. There haven't been that many changes made and people see what they want to see.

"The bare facts are that we need to win some games and then there's a better feeling around the football club if that's the case."

O'Neill could be forced into making some changes for tomorrow's match after the win over Reading came at a cost.

Winger Adam Johnson suffered a dead leg and Danny Rose was also replaced after he picked up a knock on his ankle.

Defender Phil Bardsley looks set to be ruled out and joins captain Lee Cattermole on the sidelines after he damaged knee ligaments in Tuesday's match.

"Some of the lads are pretty sore," O'Neill said. "I think Phil Bardsley will be really struggling and I'm not terribly sure about the others at this moment.

"I got an update yesterday but that might change again."

However, O'Neill remains hopeful that striker Steven Fletcher could feature despite an ongoing ankle problem.

"We got a great boost from him (Fletcher) declaring himself fit last Tuesday morning," O'Neill said.

"That was great and you could see the confidence in the dressing room got greater because of it and it would be important if he could play for us.

"We came in this time last year and we won some matches and it gave supporters a real lift. It gave the dressing room a major lift and that's very important.

"That's the sort of feeling that you want. We have to work so hard to get anything from matches and when you do you feel like it has all be worthwhile."

PA

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