MARTIN O’NEILL says Sunderland’s confidence-drained players must show courage this weekend to overcome their home jitters.
Sunderland have recorded just one victory at the Stadium of Light since March and host third-placed Chelsea on Saturday boasting only two points from their last four Premier League encounters on Wearside.
Given Sunderland’s precarious 17th-placed position – one point above the top-flight drop zone – O’Neill expects an edgy atmosphere for crunch back-to-back home games against Chelsea and Reading, who come north on Tuesday.
But the Black Cats’ boss says his players must block out the tension and be mentally strong enough to give the Stadium of Light faithful some cheer.
O’Neill said: “It takes a strong player to play here for Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. I’ve often thought that.
“There are clubs up and down the country where it’s tough playing at home.
“I managed a team up in Scotland for five years where you had to be a really decent player, with a strong mentality.
“I think it was the late Tommy Burns who said it was harder to play for Celtic than to play against them. I know exactly what he means.
“Here it’s demanding and you have to have plenty of courage and ability to play here.
“You have to have a good mentality and a bit of self-confidence.
“And then you need to go and win some football matches and put on a performance.
“That’s very, very important.”
O’Neill does not attach any blame to Sunderland supporters, far from it in fact.
He understands the worries over the club’s current plight, particularly considering the Black Cats have suffered the ignominy of relegation twice in the last decade.
But O’Neill has experienced the power of a buoyant Stadium of Light during his year in charge and is eager to make that a regular occurrence.
O’Neill added: “This frustration that seems to pervade here is nothing new to me. It’s not surprising either.
“The football club hasn’t won anything for 40 years and it’s about time we did do.
“We scored a goal against Manchester City on the first day of this calendar year and the roar that greeted that was as loud as you’ll hear.
“Even the night we got beaten by Everton, there was a fantastic atmosphere that night and we didn’t do anything to help the crowd.
“When they get behind the team it’s great.
“They are frustrated after a lot of false dawns.
“It’ll take us some time to get out of this and be a proper team.
“But, when we do, it will hopefully be worth it.”