MARTIN O’Neill has no doubts that Sunderland have the strength and resilience to cope with the losses of Stephane Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole in the weeks ahead.
The Black Cats face a busy schedule of games – including the enticing FA Cup quarter-final tie at Everton next Saturday – without the services of skipper Cattermole, who starts a four-game ban today, and top scorer Sessegnon, who is banned for three games.
But O’Neill insists that his squad can cope with the absentees and points out that they have done so once, spectacularly, already under his leadership.
“No matter how bad the injury or suspension situation gets between now and the end of the season, I cannot envisage it being as bad as it was on New Year’s Day,” O’Neill told the Echo.
“I think we had something like nine players who would have been in the first-team squad unavailable to us for that game, for the visit of the league leaders, Manchester City.
“I don’t imagine people would have given much for our chances in that match but we produced a tremendous performance and nicked it right at the end for one of the results of the season.
“Of course, Stephane and Lee will be an enormous loss for us – Stephane bring us the sort of creativity that only he can, while Lee is emerging more and more as undoubtedly the leader of this group of players.
“But we have other players here who are also looking to prove and establish themselves and I would say that arguably the thing I have been most pleased with, the thing I’ve been proudest of since I got here, has been the way that that players have come into the side have performed.
“We have had midfielders playing full-back, we’ve had players performing less-favoured roles, but everyone’s stepped up to the challenge. No one has shirked it, no one has used injuries as an excuse and we’ve prospered because of that.
“I know that the squad won’t be worrying so much about losing a couple of key players, as they’ll be about keeping up the high standards we’ve set and keeping that bit of momentum going.” Fraizer Campbell is likely to become a key figure in Sessegnon’s absence while the loss of Cattermole will throw the spotlight more on the likes of Craig Gardner, David Vaughan, David Meyler and Jack Colback, while if Kieran Richardson is out for any length of time, January arrival Wayne Bridge might get a run in the side.
“I said when I first got here that we would need a squad the size that we had, maybe a little bit bigger, and that every one of them would have a part to play,” O’Neill pointed out.
“That might have seemed as though it would not be the case when we were playing well, winning games and few changes had to be made.
“But it has been proven right as the weeks have gone on and injuries and suspensions have kicked in.
“It shows it was the right decision to bring one or two bodies in during the January transfer window and although we’ve had setbacks after the derby game, I’m confident that we still have the players at our disposal who can do the club justice.”