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O'Neill confident of light at the end of the tunnel

Martin O'Neill was perplexed, briefly.

After the weekend 3-1 defeat by Chelsea a television reporter asked the Sunderland manager if the team's run of poor form had prompted any self-doubt. After staring at the floor, then glaring at the reporter, O'Neill curtly dismissed the notion. His intensity never diminishes, but indignation alone cannot alter the team's circumstances: Sunderland are a team in crisis.

It is a little more than a year since O'Neill took over at the Stadium of Light and the side has fallen into the bottom three of the Barclays Premier League for the first time in those 12 months. It must confound him, for instance, that the expensive summer signings of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson did not provide enough of an impetus to the team.

No manager can guarantee success, but O'Neill has a habit of prevailing. Even years of struggle at Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City led to progress, but experience seemed to hone his technique. Celtic were immediately forceful, committed and effective under the Northern Irishman and he won the treble in his first season in Glasgow. His Aston Villa side finished 11th, then 6th three times in a row, and Sunderland must have expected a swift upturn in fortunes.

"I know what I'm capable of," O'Neill said. "History would tend to suggest I will pull it round. History is there to be rewritten of course, but I'm pretty confident."

Fletcher and Johnson are not the culprits. The Scotland striker has scored six goals, while the England winger has shown glimpses of his trickery and inventiveness. On occasion, Sunderland have outplayed opponents, but that has often been while they are chasing games.

Defensive calamities have undermined Sunderland, and that must irk a manager who has often been portrayed as a pragmatist. O'Neill's Celtic were physically imposing in defence, and he bridled when Arsene Wenger described Villa as a long-ball team, even though the effective ploy of being solid at the back and quick on the counter had proved so effective.

Sunderland use a 4-4-1-1 shape that is functional but designed to allow Johnson and other wide players to provide attacking intent. Sunderland have won only two of their last 23 Premier League games and a team can become defeatist.

He is considered shrewd, and his general absence from the training ground has tended to urge players to try even harder to win his praise. O'Neill is unlikely to alter the way that he works, but he has seemed at odds with Sunderland's circumstances.After a 4-2 loss at home to West Bromwich Albion, a local radio station tweeted that O'Neill had resigned, which the 60-year-old had to deny, before adding that dealing with social media was something to which he would have to adjust. That the rumour was considered plausible must have stung.

Sunderland will consider the situation precarious, and tonight's meeting with Reading now seems critical. The fans continue to have faith in O'Neill, and his team was applauded from the pitch on Saturday, but patience will begin to wane if he does not find a way to arrest the team's poor form.

His predecessor, Steve Bruce, was sacked after winning five out of 27 league matches, and the last time O'Neill's side won against a team that finished the game with 11 men was in March. Those are the kind of statistics that make club owners wince, although Texan businessman Ellis Short was quick to show his support for O'Neill after the Twitter rumours.

Even so, the expectation would have been for Sunderland to improve on last season's 13th-place finish. That seems unlikely in the current circumstances.

Sunderland were in the bottom three when O'Neill took over, but won a crucial game against Blackburn Rovers to start a revival. It must gall O'Neill he is back in this situation, but his players are capable of being more self-assured. The challenge for the manager is to prompt that change in fortunes sooner rather than later.

Martin O'Neill was perplexed, briefly. After the weekend 3-1 defeat by Chelsea a television reporter asked the Sunderland manager if the team's run of poor form had prompted any self-doubt. After staring at the floor, then glaring at the reporter, O'Neill curtly dismissed the notion. His intensity never diminishes, but indignation alone cannot alter the team's circumstances: Sunderland are a team in crisis.

It is a little more than a year since O'Neill took over at the Stadium of Light and the side has fallen into the bottom three of the Barclays Premier League for the first time in those 12 months. It must confound him, for instance, that the expensive summer signings of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson did not provide enough of an impetus to the team.

No manager can guarantee success, but O'Neill has a habit of prevailing. Even years of struggle at Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City led to progress, but experience seemed to hone his technique. Celtic were immediately forceful, committed and effective under the Northern Irishman and he won the treble in his first season in Glasgow. His Aston Villa side finished 11th, then 6th three times in a row, and Sunderland must have expected a swift upturn in fortunes.

"I know what I'm capable of," O'Neill said. "History would tend to suggest I will pull it round. History is there to be rewritten of course, but I'm pretty confident."

Fletcher and Johnson are not the culprits. The Scotland striker has scored six goals, while the England winger has shown glimpses of his trickery and inventiveness. On occasion, Sunderland have outplayed opponents, but that has often been while they are chasing games.

Defensive calamities have undermined Sunderland, and that must irk a manager who has often been portrayed as a pragmatist. O'Neill's Celtic were physically imposing in defence, and he bridled when Arsene Wenger described Villa as a long-ball team, even though the effective ploy of being solid at the back and quick on the counter had proved so effective.

Sunderland use a 4-4-1-1 shape that is functional but designed to allow Johnson and other wide players to provide attacking intent. Sunderland have won only two of their last 23 Premier League games and a team can become defeatist.

He is considered shrewd, and his general absence from the training ground has tended to urge players to try even harder to win his praise. O'Neill is unlikely to alter the way that he works, but he has seemed at odds with Sunderland's circumstances.After a 4-2 loss at home to West Bromwich Albion, a local radio station tweeted that O'Neill had resigned, which the 60-year-old had to deny, before adding that dealing with social media was something to which he would have to adjust. That the rumour was considered plausible must have stung.

Sunderland will consider the situation precarious, and tonight's meeting with Reading now seems critical. The fans continue to have faith in O'Neill, and his team was applauded from the pitch on Saturday, but patience will begin to wane if he does not find a way to arrest the team's poor form.

His predecessor, Steve Bruce, was sacked after winning five out of 27 league matches, and the last time O'Neill's side won against a team that finished the game with 11 men was in March. Those are the kind of statistics that make club owners wince, although Texan businessman Ellis Short was quick to show his support for O'Neill after the Twitter rumours.

Even so, the expectation would have been for Sunderland to improve on last season's 13th-place finish. That seems unlikely in the current circumstances.

Sunderland were in the bottom three when O'Neill took over, but won a crucial game against Blackburn Rovers to start a revival. It must gall O'Neill he is back in this situation, but his players are capable of being more self-assured. The challenge for the manager is to prompt that change in fortunes sooner rather than later.

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