Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy is confident the green shoots of recovery are breaking through the turf at the Stadium of Light.
The Black Cats seem doomed to drop back into Division One as a difficult campaign draws to a disastrous conclusion – and while the former Republic of Ireland manager has by no means accepted his fate, he is already planning for what lies ahead.
Although things have not gone well on the pitch at senior level – his first game in charge was a 2-0 home defeat by Bolton and the second was last weekend’s 2-0 reverse at West Ham – he has sensed a positive response from his players.
Senior professionals Gavin McCann – yet to play for the new manager after picking up a two-match ban – Phil Babb and Marcus Stewart were among those who got their chance to impress for the reserves in their 1-0 victory over Manchester United on Monday night.
McCarthy was in the crowd at New Ferens Park – and despite knowing the gulf between that and first-team football is immense, he was delighted with what he saw.
“I was encouraged by the reserves the other night,” he said.
“What I liked about the senior players who were involved was their terrific attitude.
“Having seen the reserves lose at West Brom last week and then seeing us beaten at West Ham on Saturday, it was very disappointing. It was nice to be in a winning dressing room on Monday.
“I was delighted with Mark Rossiter at right-back; Michael Proctor and Marcus Stewart were terrific up front; Gavin McCann was excellent – it was an excellent performance. They all did well.
“Look at Phil Babb. This is a guy who has played in a World Cup, and he doesn’t want to be in the reserves. I’ve been there; I know it – he wants to be in the big games.
“What you want from the reserves is to see people do things the right way, and they certainly worked hard.”
Sunderland return to Barclaycard Premiership action next Saturday when Champions League-chasing Chelsea head for Wearside. A failure to end their run of eight successive league defeats would nudge them ever closer to the trapdoor, but McCarthy is already starting to look to the long term.
Former Manchester City midfielder Jeff Whitley also played in the reserves on Monday and was expected to line up again for Jocky Scott’s side against Bolton tonight – and McCarthy has hinted he could have a future on Wearside.
“There has been a certain amount of interest in Jeff since he played for us on Monday,” he told the club’s official website, www.safc.com.
“You expect that, based on his very positive performance.
“I like him, and he has done well since he has been here. We will progress it when we can but – I’m very keen. At the minute he’s here training with us, and I’m interested in him.
“I have known Jeff for a long time, since his days at Man City, and I’d met him a couple of times before he came to us.
“I knew his circumstances of leaving City. He went to Leicester, but when we asked him to come here he couldn’t get in the car quickly enough to show what he could do. Why wouldn’t he be interested in coming here?”