Former Canary boss Martin O’Neill is looking to take a leaf right out of Norwich’s book as his struggling Black Cats arrive in Norfolk tomorrow.
Sunderland – alongside the likes of Aston Villa, Wigan and, indeed, North-East neighbours Newcastle – have struggled to put any sort of consistent form together thus far this season. A fact reflected in their lowly league position.
Norwich, by contrast, remain unbeaten since the first week of October and victory tomorrow – potentially their fourth, straight home Premier League success after the wins against Arsenal, Stoke and Manchester United – could propel them to within sight of the top half of the table.
The significance of the mid-week draw away at an in-form Southampton was also not lost on O’Neill – shrewd enough to recognise both the extent of Norwich’s autumn turnaround and the value of simply staying unbeaten in a league where every point is priceless. Not to mention equally worth a significant, seven-figure sum when the final place ‘prizes’ are totted up at the end of the season.
“They had a poor start to the season and were right down there but they’ve now gone on an unbeaten run of seven games which has carried them up the table and given them confidence,” O’Neill told the Sunderland Echo in the run-up to tomorrow’s four o’clock kick-off.
The trick, he confirmed, was to make yourself hard to beat; to inject the kind of midfield work-rate that Messrs Tettey and Johnson have brought to the party that then sits alongside the defensive solidity that anything based around the ‘Rock of Bassong’ offers.
“You can’t underestimate the importance of remaining unbeaten and putting together a run like that – it has helped give Norwich for example a durability,” he said. “I think they realise the value of runs like that where they avoid defeat too.”
The respect between the two managers appeared to be mutual; Hughton, too, recognising that the Black Cats would likewise be ‘tight’ across the park; goals – as ever – would be at a premium. A 4-4 draw was not, you suspect, on the cards.
It would, said Hughton, be yet another stiff test of Norwich’s spirit and resolve – both of which have been evident a-plenty over the last couple of months.
“I think Sunderland probably haven’t had the start that they would have liked,” Hughton told the Press, with Norfolk a-buzz of what the next month might bring – a semi-final spot in the Capital One Cup being just one prize on offer.
If the Canaries can keep their heads and just continue to do what they have been doing – the kind of simples that underpin Hughton’s managerial style.
Now to find the one moment to prise Sunderland apart – and then stay resolute at the back.
“They seem a very tight unit,” added Hughton. “They conceded at home to West Brom the game before last, but they’re not a side that looks like conceding a lot of goals.
“Perhaps similarly to ourselves in the early part of the season they’ve found it difficult to get the amount of goals that they’d want.”
Cue Grant Holt’s frustrations of late. As ever, big shifts but for no real return goals-wise. Something he shares with Sunderland’s big-money summer purchase – Steven Fletcher.
“They’ve got a lot of good footballers,” said Hughton. “And certainly with Steven Fletcher up front they’ve got someone that’s very exciting and very clinical, and I have no doubt with Martin at the helm they will start picking up the points that they want.”
Team-wise, Hughton confirmed that keeper John Ruddy is likely to be sidelined for up to three months with his thigh injury – cue a lengthy run for Mark Bunn.
Michael Turner is also expected to miss the reunion with his former employers leaving the way open for England Under-21 defender Ryan Bennett to continue alongside The Rock of Bassong.