A YEAR AGO today, the flashbulbs rattled on the Stadium of Light pitch as Martin O’Neill was unveiled to the press as Sunderland’s new manager.
Initially, O’Neill boasted the Midas touch as Sunderland soared away from the threat of relegation and emerged as the in-form side of the Premier League.
Yet now, O’Neill is enduring the troubles which have plagued so many of his predecessors.
SportMail’s Chris Young examines the difference between the Sunderland of O’Neill’s first four months in charge and the side which has laboured to within touching distance of the drop zone in the first four months of this season.
THERE IS no mystery around the magic elixir which soothes struggling sides.
Confidence cures all ills in the quest to put points on the board.
While formations, personnel and tactics all matter, self-belief outweighs anything that a manager can do to his side.
That is Martin O’Neill’s big problem in an increasingly alarming slide.
Sunderland’s players are desperately lacking confidence after just two Premier League wins all season and the only thing that can boost their fragile mentality is results. It’s a catch-22 situation.
But it is not just the obvious seeds of mental doubt that are the big difference between the Sunderland side which was rampant during the early stages of O’Neil’s stewardship and the current brittle, inconsistent and under-performing outfit.
Several notable factors worked in Sunderland’s favour during that glorious charge at the turn of the year, none of which have been present in the opening third of a season which has spectacularly underwhelmed.
THE PRESSING GAME
FACED with the desperation to make amends for an utterly inept 45 minutes, Sunderland pressed an opposition side for the first time this season in the second half at Norwich City.
The Black Cats collectively harassed and closed down the Canaries deep in their own half, and only fortune and Sunderland’s profligacy in front of goal preserved Norwich’s lead.
Sunderland’s constant pressing saw them win the ball in far more advanced positions, where players were already within touching distance of the opposition penalty area, rather than having to make lung-busting runs to support the attack.
That was symptomatic of what Sunderland did during O’Neill’s early days, and what his sides have tended to do during his managerial career.
But until the interval at Carrow Road, Sunderland have spent the season backing off teams, allowing them to play and then trying - and generally failing - to profit on the counter-attack.
Perhaps it’s a deliberate ploy due to Sunderland not being blessed with pace in their first choice central defensive pairing, or perhaps it’s simply attributable to a lack of confidence in the players.
But in the first half in Norfolk, Norwich were given an inordinate amount of time to play neat one-twos.
It was a similar situation against West Brom a fortnight ago when James Morrison had the run of the land.
The loss of Lee Cattermole doesn’t help, but Sunderland have not got the physical specimens to out-muscle players, so must look to force opposition sides to surrender possession.
SUNDERLAND’S goal of the season poll last year provided a salivating highlights reel.
When the Black Cats were at their pomp, they were almost unwilling to succumb to the simplicity of a tap-in.
No angle or range was too daunting, as Stephane Sessegnon, Fraizer Campbell, Craig Gardner, David Vaughan and Seb Larsson all thrashed goals into the net from outside the area.
But other than Gardner and Sessegnon’s sublime strike at Fulham, Sunderland have been hesitant in trying their luck this time around.
Again, it comes down to confidence, but too many times, Sunderland’s dangermen have been too willing to pass the buck with an extra pass rather than let fly themselves.
When O’Neill was appointed, he was immediately asked about the problems up front and he noted that Sunderland had to get goals from other sources.
That still applies now.
AN INDIVIDUAL SPARK
THE O’NEILL bandwagon may have been halted in its tracks if it hadn’t been for James McClean.
The hunger and utter lack of fear from the ex-Derry City winger provided the catalyst for the dramatic late comeback in O’Neill’s first game in charge against Blackburn Rovers and although he had to wait until New Year’s Day for a first start, McClean was at the heart of Sunderland’s rehabilitation.
McClean’s enthusiasm rubbed off on his team-mates, who were eager to show that it wasn’t just the unknowns who could make an impact in the Premier League.
But McClean has struggled this season, as have Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon, albeit the duo have made fleeting contributions.
The only outfield player who can genuinely claim to be in-form is Danny Rose, yet it is tough to influence the rest of the side from left-back.
Perhaps Connor Wickham will provide a catalyst, although it is premature to pin hopes on the 19-year-old after just 45 minutes.
THE MOMENTUM garnered by a change of fortune, plus the eagerness to impress the new manager, created an atmosphere where almost every player in the squad made their mark.
James McClean came from the shadows and became an Ireland international.
David Vaughan was the fulcrum for Sunderland’s midfield.
Fraizer Campbell shrugged off 17 months on the treatment table with two stunning goals in his first two games.
Ji Dong-won grabbed the priceless stoppage time victory against Manchester City.
The enigmatic Nicklas Bendtner produced mammoth centre-forward displays in the trips to Tyneside and the Etihad.
But it has been the same players shining again and again this season - Danny Rose, Simon Mignolet, Lee Cattermole and Carlos Cuellar.
Admittedly, O’Neill has shown little inclination to shuffle his pack.
But other than Wickham on Sunday, those who have enjoyed brief forays from the bench have done little to further their cause for greater first-team involvement.
IN HIS first 10 games in charge at the Stadium of Light, Martin O’Neill tasted defeat just once - the last-gasp loss to Arsenal when Sunderland’s players were physically spent.
But already this season, Sunderland have lost three times on their own patch and recorded just one top flight victory against Wigan.
Home form has to be the bedrock of any successful side, yet it is not just points which Sunderland have failed to accumulate on Wearside this season.
Sunderland have been unable to grab the excitement of the vast majority of their followers, who will only witness them in the flesh at home.
The last time Sunderland genuinely left the Stadium of Light enthused at the full-time whistle was after the 3-1 victory over QPR last March.
Dreary home performances simply serve to foster an element of tension in the atmosphere and inevitably that spreads to the players.
Back-to-back outings at the Stadium of Light await and Sunderland desperately need to remind Wearside of the winning feeling.