THE artistry of Stephane Sessegnon and industry of James McClean were recognised by their manager in the wake of the stale draw against Wolves on Saturday.
And he acknowledged Sunderland need to be better at exploiting their talents in the few games remaining this season.
“Sessegnon was the one player we had who created against Wolves,” he said. “He’s got that great ability and if anytone was going to make something happen, you sensed it was him.
“He’s the one spark we had in the game that might have ignited things for us.
“We’ve got James McClean too, of course, but he’s now a marked man and obviously there’s someone doubling up on him every game.
“What I need to do is to make sure we get someone to help him out and that we exploit the space he creates because McClean has been major for us in pulling us around.”
The frustration for O’Neill is that Sunderland, having done so much hard work since his arrival, are in danger of subsiding, rather than surging towards the end of the season.
“I don’t want us to just see out the season,” he insisted.
“The game itself might suggest we’re heading that way, but I hope it’s not.
“I don’t want to believe that myself. I don’t sense that it is, but we didn’t play well.”
Beneath that observation, it was possible to detect an undercurrent of hardening attitudes from the Sunderland manager – Sessegnon and McClean have come to the party, others too, but he will not carry passengers.
And he will use these last few games to assess his first-team and fringe players and determine their futures – or lack of them – at Sunderland Football Club.
“Players are always playing for their positions,” he pointed out.
“There are opportunities for players to prove they want to be part of things and equally, an opportunity perhaps to show they don’t want to be part of things – so there’s plenty to play for.
“Ji Dong-won, Connor Wickham and others haven’t really been involved, but they and Ahmed Elmohamady might come into consideration in these last couple of games.
“We’ve got to press on again and try and improve the squad.
“If you look at our bench we have a couple of loan players – and next season we want to have a stronger squad and bench.
“Whoever comes into the side in these last few games has to give us that bit of freshness and vitality that was missing against Wolves.
“But by the same token, they have to prove they want and deserve to be in the team.”