Smart O’Neill’s finds plenty in reserve

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Reserve team football has become an outmodish concept – a relic from an era where big names didn’t lose face by maintaining their fitness for the stiffs.

Nowadays, second string affairs in the sanitised surroundings of a club’s academy pitches are invariably swamped by rookies, too old for the youth team yet too raw for the firsts and thus forced to tread water until the fortunate few can earn a loan move away.

So perhaps, to benefit the future of this once invaluable resource, one or two Premier League managers could take a leaf out of Martin O’Neill’s book.

Three days before O’Neill’s first game in charge against Blackburn Rovers, the new Sunderland boss familiarised himself with some of the less-celebrated options at his disposal by braving the biting conditions at Eppleton CW to see the reserves thrash Manchester United 6-3.

It was far from a mandatory trip for O’Neill to fulfil his obligations as Steve Bruce’s successor.

He watched from the back of the stand as those who had been restricted in their first-team opportunities under Bruce, were deemed surplus to requirements or too young to feature, excelled in making a positive first impression on the Ulsterman.

O’Neill clearly took notice – four of the starting line-up at Wigan last night were in the reserve side that faced Man United, while a fifth, David Meyler, was introduced from the bench.

It’s a good job O’Neill did do his homework amid Sunderland’s worst injury crisis of the season, a list of absentees that is only growing with Seb Larsson missing out last night with a hamstring strain while Jack Colback limped away from the DW Stadium after a heavy knock to his ankle.

But after arriving at the Stadium of Light in an age of austerity, where funding for a wholesale overhaul of personnel is highly unlikely, O’Neill needed to justify his lofty reputation for bringing out the best in players by making the most of the options at his disposal.

In the four O’Neill has plucked from the second string, he has reaped priceless rewards.

* Full verdict in today’s Sunderland Echo