Sunderland players right to miss Festival

Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill

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SUNDERLAND boss Martin O’Neill has backed the decision of his players not to head off to the Cheltenham Festival this week to enjoy the show-piece racing event.

The players had received an attractive invite from sponsors to be their guests at the high-profile race meeting and plans had been put in place to go.

But with Sunderland struggling for any sort of form and having taking just one point from their last 18, it was deemed too insensitive to the club’s fans for the players to be seen or heard off at an event which has produced more than its fair share of photographs of players behaving badly in recent years.

O’Neill though felt that purely for footballing reasons, it was important that the players devoted their full attention this week to preparing for the key game against Norwich City this weekend at the Stadium of Light.

“The Cheltenham thing was straight-forward,” he told the Echo.

“The lads had though about going down there. And I’m quite sure had we eked out a win against QPR then they probably would have gone.

“But in the grand scheme of things I think the priority is clear and that is the overwhelming need to win some football games, hopefully starting this weekend and to do that, the focus has to be be total.”

The news of the players’ U turn on Cheltenham was first revealed in the Charles Sale column in the Daily Mail who claimed the decision to forego the race meeting had been the managers and had left the players out of pocket.

Sale said: “Martin O’Neill is reported to have barred his squad from a trip to Cheltenham.

“O’Neill is understood to have taken his hard-line action despite the players having forked out around £50,000 for travel and accommodation, which included helicopter flights to and from the North East.

“The Sunderland contingent were due to be guests of bookmakers Bet365.”

The club however has insisted that the players were in agreement that they should not make the trip.