MARTIN O’Neill admits tonight’s pivotal rearranged clash against Reading is on a par with his Sunderland managerial bow against Blackburn Rovers.
O’Neill inherited a squad of confidence-drained players from predecessor Steve Bruce last December, but immediately sparked some momentum in his first game in charge by a dramatic late victory against Blackburn.
Sunderland would have dropped into the bottom three had they lost that match – a position they now find themselves in after defeats in five of their last seven outings.
O’Neill is under no illusions about the magnitude of tonight’s encounter against second-bottom Reading, where victory would propel them out of the drop zone, but more importantly at least ensure they again average a point per game.
“When I came in here this time last year, I thought the Blackburn game was very important,” said O’Neill.
“Of course this match attains the same importance.
“It’s a big game for us. It’s not the be-all and end-all for us, but it is important psychologically as much as anything else.
“If we can win, we’d rise a number of positions in the league. But that’s not the most important thing, it’s points on the board. Once we get some points on the board and win a few matches, then you can start looking at positions.”
O’Neill stresses though that there is more than half of the season to go, and although Sunderland face festive encounters against both Manchester clubs and Tottenham, the Black Cats had a knack of recording unexpected victories last season.
“Sometimes you can win a few games when it’s least expected, pull yourself out of trouble and wonder about what all the fuss was in the first place,” he said.
“We’re not like that at the minute, but we’re capable of winning a few games.
“We’ve got 20-odd games left in the league so there’s an awful lot of points left to play for.
“There are a number of teams in a similar position with just a point or two separating four or five clubs.
“Queen’s Park Rangers still believe they can get out of trouble, Reading themselves believe that, Southampton certainly do. We have to believe that we are capable of doing it too.
“We found ourselves in this position last season and we showed the spirit and determination to get out of it.
“Maybe people felt we couldn’t do it, but we did do and suddenly we were out of trouble more quickly than even I had anticipated.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill yesterday moved to quell any talk over his future as Sunderland manager by insisting he remains the right man to take charge at the Stadium of Light.
O’Neill said: “I don’t want to sound wildly boastful, but not only am I the best man for the job, I am actually the only man for the job.
“We will steer it through, we will get calmer waters ahead – it might take us a few months to do that – and then we will see.”