SUNDERLAND’S squad will return to Wearside on Sunday, having spent the past week training here in Portugal.
As the Black Cats approach the end of their stint on the Algarve, CHRIS YOUNG speaks to skipper John O’Shea about Sunderland’s pre-season progress and the current make-up of the squad.
JOHN O’Shea breaks into a hearty laugh when pressed about his own future.
After just turning 33 and entering the final 12 months of his Sunderland contract, it’s an obvious line of questioning for the Black Cats skipper.
But O’Shea is the ultimate diplomat.
Following years of being well-versed in the media booby traps which accompany life as a Manchester United player, O’Shea is arguably the most astute member of Sunderland’s squad in spotting – and avoiding – potential headlines.
The Republic of Ireland international is a manager in the making.
Either that or a politician.
O’Shea won’t be lured into publicly urging Sunderland to enter into talks over extending his contract.
Neither will he put a timescale on how long he foresees his immensely decorated career to go on for, although don’t expect this season to be his last. “The legs are OK so far!” he says.
“The important thing is to feel you’re contributing.
“I’m looking forward to another season in the Premier League which we can hopefully enjoy a bit more.”
O’Shea is in good spirits and so he should be.
None of his three years at the Stadium of Light have been dull, yet last season’s rollercoaster was like crossing an emotional and physical minefield.
In the darkest of days – when relegation looked to be a mere formality – the Sunderland captain was the one who fronted up and spoke to the media about not giving up the survival battle.
That’s not as straightforward as it sounds when irate and disenchanted supporters are looking to slaughter any player who dares to put his head above the parapet.
But after getting the chance to draw breath during the summer following the Great Escape, there is a more tranquil feeling to proceedings now, albeit fans are increasingly frustrated over the club’s transfer activity.
The key aspect for O’Shea is whether Sunderland can harness the feel-good factor from survival and begin the new season on the front foot.
“Everyone is looking forward to the start to the season,” he said.
“We want to keep that momentum going from the end of last season.
“But we know that’s not going to be easy.
“That’s why we’re over here working very hard.
“We’re here for fitness work, but also to improve on team shape, team morale.”
With Gus Poyet in charge for a full summer and Sunderland not hampered by the “hand grenade” management of Paolo Di Canio, can the Wearsiders enjoy a more profitable campaign?
Again, O’Shea is cautious, although probably rightly after two successive years of playing in the relegation dogfight.
He said: “We’re not looking too far ahead.
“We’re not looking any further than West Brom on the first game of the season.
“That’s what all the focus of our work is on.”
That graft on the training ground is going according to plan.
While there are evident concerns from both Poyet and supporters over Sunderland’s transfer activity, this pre-season is a far cry from the one orchestrated by Paolo Di Canio 12 months ago.
A feeble five warm-up games last summer – including one against the Italian Dog and Duck – was hardly ideal preparation.
But Sunderland have already played five friendlies over the last fortnight, with a further three to go, and players are gradually building up their match sharpness.
Although Sunderland’s 100 per cent record in their pre-season programme came to an end after Portugese outfit CD Nacional snatched a last-gasp victory on Wednesday, there were six players in the Black Cats starting line-up – including O’Shea – who completed their first 90 minutes of the summer.
“The important thing is the minutes,” added O’Shea.
“A few of the lads had knocks beforehand, but we managed to get Billy (Jones) through 45, which was very good.
“Obviously we had to make a few changes in the second half – Catts (Lee Cattermole) picked up a little knock, but nothing too serious.
“But the main thing was that plenty of us got 90 minutes.
“It was a bit disappointing because we had plenty of chances in the match before we got done with the classic sucker punch at the end.
“We should have been a couple of goals ahead in the first half after we played really well.
“Most importantly, though, is the fitness and the team shape – there’s different things we’re working on.”