MARTIN O’Neill hailed James McClean’s return to footballing form exactly a year to the day since the manager handed the young winger his first-team debut.
In an excellent display overall last night, the 23-year-old scored his first Premier League goal of the season – a goal which could hardly have been better timed.
O’Neill said: “It’s great for James to have got that goal – I think it will give him masses of confidence.
“There were signs all night of the form he showed last season – he wasn’t getting down whenever he lost the ball, he stayed strong and kept wanting it all the time.
“It was good to get the first goal, and I think James getting it for us so early was important.
“It took the anxiety out of the crowd.
“I’m delighted to have won, naturally.
“There’s a sense of relief too – it was good to win the game.
“We’ve been chasing games here at the Stadium of Light, and giving teams big starts, trying to get back into the game, and then giving away daft penalty kicks and giving ourselves more work to do.
“So to get off to a winning start was great.”
Sunderland built on that with Steven Fletcher’s vital second goal midway through the half, and O’Neill was quick to pay tribute to the contribution of his leading scorer.
“He had done no work whatsoever, and I wasn’t sure whether he could play,” said the manager of a player whose ankle injury ruled him out of the Chelsea game.
“He came out on the morning of the game for a loosener, but wanted to give it a go.
“I would have been happy with a half from him, but he had to make it to the end because of the lack of subs with us getting injury after another.
“He scored a great goal, and he’s always likely to get something like that you feel.
“Danny Rose did well to get the ball to him, but Fletcher turned it into a goal.
“That goal settled us down and gave us a cushion for any set backs.”
O’Neill acknowledged that Connor Wickham had done well against Chelsea in his first start of the season, but said that having Fletcher available was a great boost to the whole squad.
“It was great for Steven Fletcher to declare himself fit,” he said.
“I think Connor Wickham has done fine but it would have been putting a lot on his shoulders in the Reading game.
“Fletcher playing gave the whole team a boost and you could see that in the dressing room.”
That dressing room was a good place to be after last night’s victory – Sunderland’s first win since the Fulham game almost a month ago.
“The winning of football games is all-important, and if you haven’t had one for a while, it doesn’t matter about performances.”
“We had a really good second half against Norwich which yielded nothing and we did well against Chelsea but you can talk until you are blue in the face about stuff like that.
“Sometimes it just comes down to winning football matches.”