Martin O’Neill attended his first press call yesterday since Sunderland returned to pre-season training earlier this week.
The Echo’s Chris Young was at the Academy of Light to speak with the Sunderland boss, as he looked ahead to the demands of the pre-season regime and returning to work after a whirlwind opening six months in the Black Cats hotseat.
A towering structure of steel has transformed the skyline over the Academy of Light.
In the two months since the curtain came down on the 2011/12 campaign, the construction of Sunderland’s new indoor training barn has gathered pace to such an extent that the building is already beginning to take shape.
The foundations are laid, the skeleton of girders are in place and workmen busily scuttle around the sight as Sunderland’s players are put through their paces on the opposite side of the academy.
But while it’s all-change regarding the facilities in Cleadon, Martin O’Neill remains the same engaging character as he lays forth his early impressions of pre-season while sipping on a cup of tea inside the adjacent main building.
As usual, O’Neill starts off his regular chat with the posse of journalists from the local media by happily engaging on non-footballing matters – books he’s read over the summer and his favourite topic of crime.
And then it’s down to business, as O’Neill begins the round of press conferences which will persist for the next 10 months.
With O’Neill, there’s not the same sense of football being the all-consuming interest over the close season as there was with his predecessor. The former Aston Villa boss is a far more multi-layered character.
But once O’Neill begins to ponder the question of whether he’s glad to be back in the groove, his passion for the rigours of pre-season and the tests that await shines through.
O’Neill said: “The close season has absolutely flown. It genuinely seems about 10 minutes ago since that final day of the season, which I don’t think anyone will forget.
“You watch the European Championships from a distance. Some games I thoroughly enjoyed, others I shouldn’t have expected any better.
“As you get into things, you get used to it again and I do actually enjoy it.”
Inevitably, the questions begin to turn to the matter of transfers and O’Neill’s hopes of adding to a squad that looks relatively thin following the summer’s departures, particularly when Sunderland will be without their posse of internationals for next week’s trip to South Korea.
But again, O’Neill shows no change.
He is still the manager who keeps his cards pressed intriguingly close to his chest regarding those he may or may not be pursuing.
The familiar names of those who Sunderland have been linked with all summer are raised and O’Neill plays an impeccable Sachin Tendulkar-esque straight bat, insisting it would be unfair to comment on those at other clubs.
What he will happily discuss is the arrival of sole summer signing Carlos Cuellar and what chores the Spaniard and his unfamiliar team-mates have faced in these pivotal early days of July.
Certainly, Cuellar and co have faced a far more civilised fitness programme than the one from O’Neill’s own playing days.
The cross country runs, assault courses and star-jumps are a thing of the post. This week, the footballs have graced the academy turf from Day One.
“There’s no doubt that pre-season has improved immensely scientifically and I think it’s because, certainly in my time in the game, players enjoyed their summer,” said O’Neill.
“When you came back in pre-season, you might have come back a couple of pounds overweight so the training was geared towards getting players back in shape over the first couple of weeks.
“Nowadays players look after themselves in the summer-time and therefore it’s less difficult from that view point.
“In my own experience of pre-season, you didn’t see a football for a week or 10 days which was very disconcerting.
“It’s different now, players see the ball and that encourages them to do things they would normally be reluctant to do.
“Things have changed and probably changed for the better.”
Now that the dust has settled on last season, O’Neill is also able to benefit from hindsight in assessing his first six months on Wearside.
O’Neill now agrees that Sunderland’s campaign came to a premature end in late March when they crashed out of the FA Cup with a whimper after losing the quarter final replay to Everton at a packed Stadium of Light.
Sunderland failed to win any of their remaining eight Premier League encounters, although O’Neill believes physical factors were to blame for the Black Cats’ slump.
O’Neill said: “We got beaten against Everton in the FA Cup when things were going really well for us. We were on a great run at that time.
“I know the following week we went to Manchester City and probably had our best performance in terms of out-playing a team who ended up winning the championship.
“But it was put to me by a number of people that the Everton game had knocked the edge off us.
“I didn’t think so at the time, but in hindsight, it definitely had an effect on us.
“We had worked so hard in the previous months from a team that looked like they might be relegated, to one that was not only safe, but were rising up the table.
“It wasn’t so much a case of taking our foot off the pedal. I think we just got physically tired.
“Having said that, if you’d given me that position on the day I signed, I would happily have taken it.”
The manner of that Everton defeat obviously still rankles with O’Neill.
It was one of the seminal moments of the season, in many ways similar to the Wear-Tyne derby defeat in August, which Steve Bruce continued to refer to months after the event.
But in a roundabout way that cup replay represents the objective O’Neill is aspiring to – the sight of the Stadium of Light once more brimming with faces and roaring Sunderland on to the chance of silverware.
O’Neill added: “I know David Moyes, the Everton manager, said at the time it was the best they’d played all season. And interestingly, I met Phil Neville on holiday who said exactly the same.
“That maybe a small consolation, but we were unable to galvanise ourselves for even a 15-minute period that with the crowd behind us, might have been good enough to force a goal.
“That became disappointing because Wembley was very close, but from the outset (of his reign) you’d not thought about it.
“If we’d been beaten by Peterborough in the third round and gone on to win the next three league games, I don’t think there would have been any disappointment.
“But that evening was certainly what I thought the club should be all about.”