AFTER two years at the managerial coal-face in the Northern Premier Division, Martin O’Neill was reaching the end of his stint at Grantham Town on April 15, 1989.
While O’Neill’s own playing days at Nottingham Forest had concluded eight years earlier, three of those who were apprentices while he was at the City Ground – Steve Sutton, Des Walker and Steve Hodge – were all attacking the Leppings Lane End on that fateful day in north Sheffield.
O’Neill was admirably eloquent in expressing his views on the startling conclusions of this latest and most definitive report on Hillsborough, when he faced his weekly press conference yesterday.
“It is total vindication for those Liverpool people who felt this was worthy, to fight this all the way,” said the Sunderland manager.
“It doesn’t bring people back, of course, but they have been totally and utterly vindicated.”
The aftermath of Hillsborough was not Sunderland’s battle to fight, yet no outsider could fail to be horrified and infuriated – in equal measures – by this week’s revelations.
It could have been any club’s supporters.
Just think, Sunderland played in an FA Cup semi-final at an admittedly modernised Hillsborough only three years later.
However much the events of the past may hold little connection with the slick, modern and – thankfully – safe stadiums of today, there will inevitably be an impact on tomorrow night’s clash.
One questioner to O’Neill this week predicted that the atmosphere would be “emotionally charged” and it was an apt conclusion to draw.
The vocal and visual support from the new away section, high in the North Stand, will surely buoy Liverpool over the early stages as they look to harness the emotional energy of Merseyside into a first Premier League success of the season.
But one thing Sunderland have already shown in the opening two games is a resiliency.
They were under the cosh at Arsenal, without ever really getting sliced apart by the hosts, and came away with a point from south Wales despite being second-best to a handsomely slick Swansea side.
Those results – coupled with O’Neill’s acquisitions – have given Sunderland a healthy confidence and despite going six months without registering a league victory, there will be an expectation in the Black Cats camp tomorrow that they can extend Liverpool’s wretched start to the campaign.
Judging by Liverpool’s last outing against Arsenal too, Brendan Rodgers is going to need more than pretty passing to convince that this toothless side can gatecrash the top four, or even top six.
The front three of Luis Suarez, Fabio Borini and Raheem Sterling are not lacking in talent, yet are hardly blessed with natural finishing instincts.
Likewise, Steven Gerrard may still have the ability to pick a pass, but the days of habitually hitting double figures are gone.
Gerrard is still the key man for the Reds, but now has to ply his trade in a deeper midfield role alongside Joe Allen and fellow new boy Nuri Sahin – both of which can be ruffled by Sunderland’s high-tempo pressing game.
Lee Cattermole will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing fragile prey and O’Neill is sorely tempted to deploy Jack Colback alongside him, especially after Sunderland surrendered possession so cheaply following the skipper’s injury at Swansea.
Danny Rose is likely to take Colback’s spot at left-back, with the latter potentially replacing Seb Larsson in central midfield - if Adam Johnson shakes off his thigh strain.
The noises over Johnson’s injury have been positive this week and the England winger should keep his place in the starting line-up and ensure the potential in Sunderland’s front four gets a further opportunity to mature.
It is that potency going forward which can prove pivotal in Sunderland’s quest to register three points for the first time this season.
Shorn of Andy Carroll, Fernando Torres and even Dirk Kuyt, the fear factor from Liverpool continues to eke away.
Putting the inevitable emotions and attention of tomorrow night aside, Sunderland have every chance of punishing a side cemented in the midst of what will be a lengthy transition.
Verdict: Home win