MARTIN O’NEILL says Sunderland’s week in Dubai has made amends for their “interrupted” pre-season preparations.
Sunderland returned from a warm-weather training camp in the Middle East last weekend after jetting off while the Premier League took a back-seat for the FA Cup.
O’Neill understands the cynicism which has accompanied the trip, particularly after photographs appeared online of Sunderland’s players on the beach.
But the Sunderland manager says the squad will reap the rewards of an intense training programme after their pre-season was disjointed in July when they jetted off to South Korea just two days after returning to the Academy of Light.
O’Neill told the Echo: “We trained every single day and it was almost like a pre-season for us.
“The players were saying that themselves because we trained pretty hard.
“Of course, you get photographs coming out, but that’s no problem. We didn’t deliberately go out of the FA Cup just to get a few days off.
“I’d rather be playing each and every Saturday, certainly last weekend.
“But, interestingly, I think our pre-season this year was really stop-start.
“It was organised before I came here that we had the trip to South Korea and we went there on the back of two days’ training. It wasn’t enough.
“Then it was interrupted by players being away for international matches in the European Championships.
“We never really had a proper pre-season.
“Next year, we’ll change it and make sure we’re absolutely right. If we’re still in the Premiership, we’ll go to the Hong Kong tournament, which will be great, but we’ll have done 10 days before that.”
O’Neill is a strong advocate of the winter break and harks back to his own playing days at Nottingham Forest, when then manager Brian Clough regularly took the team abroad during a hiatus from competitive action.
“Because modern-day footballers earn a lot of money, certainly in the Premier League, there’s maybe an anti-feeling towards it all,” he said.
“But Brian Clough, who was a reasonably sensational manager, had us away at every single opportunity.
“I’m not talking about once during the course of the season. We headed off three or four times.
“In those days, players weren’t earning a great deal of money and anything to get out of the country for a day or two was fantastic.
“It didn’t actually do us a great deal of harm.
“We’d come back with varying degrees of success, but you have to look at the long-term benefits. I believe in it, it’s a really good thing.”
O’Neill admits the “proof will be in the pudding” tomorrow when they head to West Brom looking to end a run of two back-to-back Premier League defeats.
But Sunderland have won three times on their travels this season – a tally only matched in the bottom half by Wigan – and O’Neill is keen for more away-day success as the Black Cats look to edge towards the safety mark.
“It’s up to us to get to the 30-point mark as quickly as possible, but there’s loads of games and loads to play for,” added O’Neill.
“You have to win a number of away games during the course of a season and, at the clubs I’ve been at, that’s something I’ve been able to do.
“We need to learn the art of winning away from home.
“It takes pressure off winning matches at home, and also gives you that confidence that wherever you go, you believe you’re able to do that.
“We’ve done it a couple of times this season and between now and May, we should still feel we’re capable of winning away.”