Blackburn having ruined his latest coming of age with a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford, the Scot’s mood will have lifted somewhat at the way Sunderland found a way past a Manchester City side that on paper at least, they had no right to live with.
Due to City’s increasingly global pull, this latest instalment of their attempt to wrestle footballing supremacy from their not so noisy neighbours was broadcast to large parts of Africa in Swahili. Whatever the language, this was a huge missed opportunity, and another feather in the cap of O’Neill — one of the game’s great motivators.
After taking a point from the last two games, Roberto Mancini’s side still hold the summit, albeit only on goal difference, and it remains that in five of the last seven seasons, the team topping the table on New Year’s Day has gone on to lift the title.
Yet the cheer in Salford must have matched that from a 40,000 Stadium of Light crowd when, in the third minute of stoppage time, substitute Ji Dong-won, who replays showed was fractionally offside, took a pass from Stephane Sessegnon to round Joe Hart and score the first league goal conceded by the England keeper for more than six hours. Cue pandemonium, led by O’Neill and his trademark leap for the gods.
“For us to win the game is extraordinary,” the Irishman said, his charges heading up to 13th in the table after taking 10 points from a possible 15 under the new broom.
Sunderland’s display was full of new year’s resolution, but only their most ardent fan would not concede the visitors should have been out of sight by the time Ji scored the third consecutive stoppage-time goal in the fixture between these sides at the Stadium of Light.
City carved out numerous chances, only to spurn the lot of them to remain winless in this corner of the north-east for more than three years. Adam Johnson planted a shot onto the roof of the net after some shoddy marking at a short corner, before returning keeper Simon Mignolet’s fine close-range block from Edin Dzeko, the exceptional Craig Gardner clearing off the line from Samir Nasri’s angled effort.
When Dzeko’s 15-yard shot clipped the bar on its way over after Mignolet flapped at a corner, the visitors had fashioned half a dozen chances to one for the Wearsiders, although that proved to be the clearest of the opening 45 minutes.
Substitute Sergio Aguero should have broken the deadlock just before the hour, scuffing a close-range effort straight at Mignolet after David Silva made an immediate impact from the bench to unlock the Sunderland defence.
With time running out Micah Richards followed up to head against the bar after Mignolet blocked Silva’s shot. Perhaps it would be Sunderland’s day after all, and so it proved.
Throughout their patched-up team, the hosts gave glowing accounts of themselves as Gardner and Jack Colback stood out as make-shift full-backs, Wes Brown soon added to the manager’s woes by limping off with a groin problem inside half an hour, replaced by Matt Kilgallon, the defender’s first appearance for the club for more than 18 months, though that was difficult to discern.
O’Neill handed a full debut to James McClean, plucked from obscurity with Derry City at the start of the season, one of seven of the starting XI to have accumulated less than 20 appearances under his belt for the club. The young Irishman showed plenty of promise, testing Hart with an early run and shot as he cut in from the left.
Sunderland could have been ahead as early as the third minute when, Nicklas Bendtner, released for a free run on goal from halfway by a sumptuous Sessegnon pass, couldn’t find a way past Hart, shooting straight at the City keeper having not looked remotely like scoring.
It proved to be a similar scenario after the break, City dominating, but Sunderland missing a golden opportunity with 25 minutes remaining. Sessegnon failed to follow-up superb approach play, leaving Vincent Kompany trailing with a deft turn in the area, only to fire just wide.
The midfielder atoned, and how, with a pivotal role in the winner, taken with aplomb by Ji, the South Korean’s second goal in a Sunderland career confined so far largely to cameo roles off the bench. Many more finishes like that, and those appearances are set to be rather less fleeting.