The highs and lows of Martin O'Neill's Sunderland reign
The highs and lows of Martin O'Neill's Sunderland reign 2:50pm Sunday 31st March 2013 in Sunderland AFC News By Scott Wilson HIGHS Debut game against Blackburn O'Neill's reign could hardly have got off to a better start as Seb Larsson's dramatic stoppage-time winner secured a much-needed win over Blackburn that lifted Sunderland clear of the relegation zone at a time when they were sinking fast. The emergence of James McClean Having watched McClean play for the reserves, O'Neill gave the Irishman a senior debut as a substitute in his first fixture. The youngster would go on to be the star of the second half of last season, although his form has dipped considerably this term. Ji Dong-won's winner against Manchester City Sunderland had more than matched the eventual Premier League champions for large periods of their game on New Year's Day 2012. But few were expecting Ji to slot home a sensational winner in the final minute. The purchase of Steven Fletcher Plenty of people baulked at O'Neill's decision to spend £12m on Fletcher, a player who had been relegated in the preceding season with Wolves. But the Scotland international's 11 goals this season have more than justified the outlay. Another win over Manchester City Having seen off City last season, no one expected Sunderland to repeat the trick at the Stadium of Light on Boxing Day, but Adam Johnson's second-half winner secured another 1-0 victory over Roberto Mancini's men. LOWS The FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Everton Sunderland were 90 minutes away from Wembley when they hosted Everton in a quarter-final replay last March, but the Black Cats were comprehensively outplayed as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat that would have major repercussions. The 12 game winless run that spanned two seasons The Everton defeat was a watershed moment, with Sunderland unable to win any of their remaining eight matches last season. The hangover carried over into the current campaign, with four successive draws at the start of the season stalling momentum. Adam Johnson's poor first season at Sunderland As well as signing Fletcher last summer, O'Neill also shelled out £10m to lure Johnson from Manchester City. The former Middlesbrough trainee was supposed to be the star of Sunderland's midfield, but his form this season has been consistently below par. Disappointing cup exits to Championship opposition Crashing out of the cup to one set of lower-league opponents is unfortunate. Doing it twice in the space of three months smacks of more deep-rooted inadequacies, and Sunderland did exactly that when they lost to Middlesbrough and Bolton this season. The current winless run that has intensified relegation fears When Sunderland won at Wigan in mid-January, they were 11th in the table. Since then, they have failed to win any of their subsequent eight fixtures, a run that has taken them to within a point of the relegation zone ahead of this weekend's trip to Chelsea.
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