MARTIN O’NEILL admits he is wary of “letting down” supporters as he prepares for his North East derby bow.
O’Neill faces the intensity of a clash with one of Sunderland’s neighbours for the first time on Sunday as Middlesbrough visit the Stadium of Light in the FA Cup fourth round.
The Ulsterman can point to a proud derby record during his managerial career – winning 16 out of 27 Old Firm clashes and savouring victory in all four meetings with Birmingham City when Aston Villa boss.
But when asked whether he was looking forward to his first taste of a North East tussle, the Sunderland boss joked: “No ...
“I obviously get concerned at not performing, letting people down and losing the game.
“But I’m sure it will be a really good experience.
“This might not go down well with every Sunderland fan, but it would be great to have a really strong North East, with the three sides still in the Premiership.
“It has traditionally been a hotbed of football and you want it to be as strong as possible.
“There’ll be a decent crowd coming, expectations will be high and our supporters will obviously want to get through, as we do as a football club.”
Despite three successive league defeats, Boro find themselves riding high in the Championship, with Tony Mowbray’s side only five points adrift of second-placed Southampton.
This season’s newly-promoted trio have all made a successful transition to the Premiership.
And with Boro buoyed at the prospect of taking the scalp of one of their two top-flight neighbours, O’Neill knows Sunderland face a testing encounter if they are to earn a place in the fifth round.
O’Neill said: “Norwich City and Swansea came up last year and are performing heroically in this league.
“Norwich have been able to get some terrific results, while Swansea are playing a lovely brand of football to their great credit.
“Who’s to say that Queen’s Park Rangers, seemingly backed with a little bit of money, cannot add a few players before next week and lift themselves up the table.
“You could have three sides in very comfortable positions during the course of the season. That might give you an indication that perhaps the Championship is a stronger division than we think.
“It’s a tough league to get out of and, when you finally make it, there’s the excitement and that lasts for a fairly lengthy period of time.
“Then you need ability to capitalise on that and that’s what the three this season are showing.
“Regardless of whether the standard has risen in the Championship, this is a game we can easily lose if things transpire against us.
“But it’s one we can win if we play strongly.”