MARTIN O’NEILL says Sunderland must cope with increased expectations now they have demonstrated they can put a good Premier League run together.
When the Irishman took over at the Stadium of Light in December, both of their last opponents in recent weeks, Wolves and Aston Villa, were above them.
But – five months on – Sunderland’s failure to beat the West Midlands pair this month has been greeted with frustration and disappointment.
And O’Neill says players have to get used to the fact that they are now expected to beat relegation candidates – and that includes this weekend when Bolton come to the Stadium of Light, resurgent but still in the relegation zone.
O’Neill knows a win this weekend would see Sunderland equal their 47 points total from last season.
And he says Sunderland must perform now like a side which expects to be in the top 10, rather than one struggling to avoid the drop.
“First things first, when I arrived we had to get out of trouble,” O’Neill pointed out. “And we achieved that goal earlier than I could have imagined. The players raised the bar and maybe that’s why our last home game, against Wolves, was such a disappointment.
“Don’t get me wrong, it would have been a disappointment anyway because it was just a poor game, but it was doubly disappointing because we are now expected to beat Wolves – whereas four months ago it would have been touch-and-go.
“Having said that, I’ve got no problem with expectations. Of course, sometimes those expectations might be misguided or misplaced, but generally they are not a bad thing to have around the place.
“We just have to be aware of those expectations and realise that it’s natural people now want us to live up to them.”
O’Neill’s arrival turned Sunderland’s season around and the team went from winning just two of their first 14 matches to winning seven of his first 10 games in charge. But O’Neill is still not 100 per cent certain whether or not it’s a case of the good squad under-performing for Steve Bruce or an average squad over-performing for him.
“The answer is, I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.
“I’d like to think that we can aspire to produce performances like the one we put in against Manchester City when we drew 3-3 at the Etihad Stadium, which was mind-boggling. Yet we then put on such a poor performance at home against Wolves.
“Are we somewhere in between? Are we slightly above the inbetween, or maybe below?
“I don’t know.
“I’ll analyse that at the end of the season, when I can sit down and think about it properly. But it is something important to decide on one way or another because a lot of decisions will stem from what we eventually decide over that issue.”