MARTIN O’Neill wasn’t exactly lost for words last night after his side’s crushing cup exit at the hands of Championship club Middlesbrough last night.
But as the words tumbled out of his mouth in the post-match Press conference, you could see his mind was elsewhere – raking over the enigma of an attack which on paper looks prolific, but, on the pitch, is powder-puff.
“The Everton game in the FA Cup quarter-final aside, I think that’s as disappointed as I’ve been here,” said the Sunderland manager.
“It was an opportunity to reach a quarter-final and we didn’t play well enough and we didn’t deserve to go through.
“We started off brightly but that didn’t last long enough and Middlesbrough forced their way into the game, got themselves in front and we didn’t create enough chances to warrant a victory.
“It was a really disappointing evening.”
O’Neill was offered the chance to blame his side’s failure to create on a lack of confidence, but he refused to accept it.
“I can’t see that it’s a confidence problem with us when you start a game like that on the back of a strong draw on Saturday,” he said, furrow-browed.
“On the contrary, I thought we should have been confident.
“But if you’re not playing well enough, you can sense it, you choose a few wrong options and then things go from bad to worse.
“The reality is, we were not good enough to go through and we have to do more to get goals.
“We have to look dangerous and when we get the ball in and around the penalty area we can’t either pass the buck or lose the ball.
“That happened far too often – we over-ran balls or misjudged the next pass through and the move evaporates.
“That’s disheartening for everyone and we have to do better.”
O’Neill is not oblivious to the fact either that the fans’ patience is being strained.
“The supporters are disappointed and rightly so,” he said. “This is part of the game and you have to go and face up to it.
“I understand fans’ frustration.
“You have to take the criticism and that’s something we have to face up to. I accept it and feel that it’s merited.
“You have a responsibility to do that and an opportunity to address it.”
Now Saturday’s home Premier League game against Aston Villa becomes a massive one.
“The team has to get the fans behind them on Saturday,” he said. We have to pick ourselves up and go about our business.
“Fair play to Middlesbrough.
“They played very well and with a real sense of freedom. The cup may not be the upmost thought in Tony Mowbray’s mind, and maybe that took any pressure off them.
“They looked as though they were enjoying themselves whereas we looked as though we weren’t and that shouldn’t have been the case.”