SAFC return for pre-season with six still absent

NO PANIC ... Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill.
NO PANIC ... Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill.

MARTIN O’Neill says it is vital Sunderland’s six players on international duty this summer get a proper break after their close-season exertions.

And that’s why he is happy to give them extended leave ahead of the challenges of the 2012/13 Premier League season.

Sunderland’s squad reported back to the Academy of Light this morning for their first day of pre-season training following the dramatic game against Manchester United at the Stadium of Light on Sunday, May 13, which brought the 2011-12 campaign to a stunning conclusion.

But absent from the roll call were the four Sunderland players involved in the Euro 2012 campaign – John O’Shea, James McClean and Keiren Westwood of the Republic of Ireland and Sweden’s Seb Larsson.

Also given an extended break were Benin’s Stephane Sessegnon and Egypt’s Ahmed Elmohamady who were both involved in World Cup qualifying games back in Africa.

The six players are not due back in training until the back end of the month.

If, as expected, none of them are involved in the Peace Cup, O’Neill will use the opportunity presented by the trip to South Korea to experiment with his fringe players.

But his main priority is to ensure that half-a-dozen of his star players are not put at risk of burn-out.

He said: “I think it is very important that players get a break between what are very demanding seasons and it was always my intention to allow those involved in international games a little more time away.

“They go straight from the end of our domestic season into a situation where almost immediately they are gearing up for international competitions and games and then not long after that we’d have been asking them to return to pre-season.

“It seems more sensible to give them a little more time away to be able to rest up, recharge the batteries and get rid of any strains or knocks they might have picked up.

“On top of that, we don’t have to worry too much about their fitness levels because they have been involved in games over the close season of a very high standard and they’ve maintained their fitness levels for those matches.”

Each Sunderland player was given an individually-tailored fitness and diet programme at the end of last season to advise them what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

And today, the players were expecting to be weighed, measured and tested to see how their condition and fitness levels have held up and what needs to be done.

Not that head of performance coach Jim Henry is too worried about that, given the increasingly high standards players are prepared to maintain.

“Long gone are the players come back de-conditioned,” he said. “There’s far too much at stake for these boys.

“Normally they come back in very good shape.”

O’Neill’s decision to give O’Shea, McClean, Westwood, Larsson, Sessegnon and Elmohamady extra time away is intended to ensure that they do less, rather than more work – with the ultra-keen attitude of so many Premier League footballers typified by Seb Larsson.

O’Neill said: “Seb was struggling with a hernia towards the back end of the season but wanted to help us by continuing to play.

“After that he planned to play with it in the Euros before finally having it operated on immediately afterwards.

“That just sums up the great attitude he has and the dedication he’s prepared to offer.

“But we decided to be fair to Seb that he should have the operation done and miss the end of our season so that he could at least be in a healthy condition for Sweden.

“It’s no problem for us to give him a few extra days rest after the Euros and by doing what we did, it means that when he returns to pre-season he’ll be free of the hernia and free just to concentrate on reaching peak fitness again.”