SEATED alongside each other at Upton Park on Monday night, Martin O’Neill and Steve Clarke were united in their aim of learning more about their Premier League peers.
But the discrepancy between the rookie and the seasoned veteran of the dug-out has been stark this year.
Fresh from finally being thrust from an assistant role into the managerial hotseat, Clarke has thrived at the Hawthorns.
Fourth-placed West Brom can boast almost double Sunderland’s points tally and head to the Stadium of Light tomorrow lunchtime looking for a fourth successive top-flight victory.
O’Neill is under no illusions about the task facing his side, yet believes his players are equally aware of the difficulties to Sunderland securing back-to-back wins for the first time since February.
“This is a big game for us and in many aspects I’m pleased that West Bromwich Albion are doing so well,” said O’Neill.
“Certainly, in the dressing room, there’s not a thought that we won’t have to put a major effort in here to get something out of the game.
“He (Clarke) was sat beside me on Monday night at the West Ham game, but I don’t know whether his aspirations for the season are now different.
“But what I do know is that the points on the board are fantastic.
“West Brom’s opening game of the season was a tough fixture at home to Liverpool.
“They came up big in that and they’ve been able to keep the momentum going from that.
“A couple of early results help greatly and the team has been playing pretty well.
“Even when they lost two consecutive games, they’ve had the wherewithal and determination to fight back again.
“They’ve done exceptionally well and they deserve great credit.”
Sunderland’s hopes have been boosted by several absentees from the Baggies squad, with powerhouse midfielder Youssuf Mulumbu expected to miss out after sustaining a hamstring strain in the final moments of last Saturday’s win over Chelsea.
Gareth McAuley (calf) and Ben Foster (groin) are also likely to remain sidelined, although on-loan Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku will return to the squad after being ineligible against his parent club.
If Sunderland can take advantage and secure victory tomorrow, they could rise up to 11th in the table, although O’Neill remains unconcerned by positions in a compacted mid-table pack.
“I just want the players to feel as if they’re capable of winning it,” he added. “The most important issue for us is the accumulation of points and then we can see where we are after X number of games.
“The league is still pretty tight, you look over your shoulders and they’re not very far away and if you dare to look up, if you win a couple of games, you can reach up there.
“But you have to keep ifs, buts and maybes out of the equation.
“We’ve got some home games coming up now and we have to take as much advantage as possible.”