O'Neill: Black Cats will battle on

Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill is remaining philosophical despite losing two of his biggest names to injury.

Last Updated: 28/03/13 at 17:25 Post Comment

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill is digging in for a battle as the Barclays Premier League campaign reaches crunch point.

The Black Cats have eight games remaining, which will determine whether or not they will still be playing in the top flight when August comes around.

The first of those comes on Saturday when runaway leaders Manchester United arrive at the Stadium of Light determined to push home their seemingly unassailable advantage, and the run-in will have to be conducted without both leading scorer Steven Fletcher and skipper Lee Cattermole, who will both miss the remainder of the campaign through injury.

O'Neill, 61, could be forgiven for cursing his luck - Fletcher suffered ankle ligament damage while on international duty with Scotland last week - but is refusing to do so.

He said: "Of course it's tough, but that's the nature of the game. Football management now is probably more difficult than ever before because you are judged on any given 10-minute spell, never mind anything else.

"Remaining upbeat is actually in my nature. Yes, of course I can get down when we have lost matches, but fighting back is part of it.

"I was talking to a few Sunderland fans yesterday in a little forum and it was that downbeat nature - they didn't expect us to get through the international matches without some misfortune, so that might tell you.

"But it's an opportunity for other people and it's up to us to be raring to go."

While Cattermole's extended lay-off was not unexpected - he underwent knee surgery yesterday after struggling to shake off a long-standing problem - Fletcher's misfortune came out of the blue.

He was carried off just minutes into his country's World Cup qualifying defeat to Wales, and it remains to be seen whether or not he too needs an operation which would sideline him for around four months.

O'Neill said: "He saw the specialist and he is in a non weight-bearing contraption for a fortnight and then they assess after that.

"But even if he does need an operation - which they are hoping he doesn't - the operation itself would be, I think, roughly about four weeks longer than his normal recuperation, so you are still looking at anything between 10 and 16 weeks."

Fletcher's 11 goals have been a major contribution to the 31 points Sunderland have collected from their 30 league games so far this season, and his loss will deprive O'Neill of his most potent weapon.

However, it may also hand January signing Danny Graham, who has lined up alongside the Scot in the last four matches, the chance to firmly establish himself on Wearside.

The £5million man is yet to score for his new club, but O'Neill is hoping the 27-year-old's time is fast approaching.

He said: "Danny has scored goals in this league, so once he gets up and running and off the mark, the rest should follow.

"I'm sure that's exactly what he's looking for. It would have been great if he got off to the start that Steven Fletcher got here. It would have settled him down.

"But now there's every opportunity for him to go and do well."

Graham's cause may be helped by winger James McClean returning to something like his best form with the Republic of Ireland over the past week.

The 23-year-old started against both Sweden and Austria and was a significant threat to provide his club manager with some better news.

O'Neill said: "Over the course of the season, he would have been a wee bit disappointed with some of his performances, but he has got that hunger and determination to do well, so between now and the end of the season, it's a great opportunity for him.

"I think he is re-enthused and ready to go."


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