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Cats star identifies positive parallel.

Byline: Stuart Rayner

DANNY Collins is starting to see parallels with this time last year after Sunderland used January's transfer window to build a settled back four and some more consistent performances.

And although the Welshman has been extolling the benefits of stability, he also believes constantly being "one game from being dropped" has helped him.

In January 2007, Sunderland signed centre-back Jonny Evans and right-back Danny Simpson on loan and were transformed from play-off contenders to Championship winners on the back of nine clean sheets in 19 games.

Twelve months later, Evans has rejoined and right-back Phil Bardsley signed from Manchester United.

Since Bardsley's pounds 2m arrival, the Black Cats have fielded the same back four and goalkeeper - Collins, Evans and Nyron Nosworthy joining the 22-year-old in front of Craig Gordon - and claimed clean sheets in two of the three games.

"In the 4-4-2 system, if you have a solid back four and goalkeeper and a team who's playing together, that's what you need," argued the 27-year-old. "I think that's helped Craig because the last few games he's made some good saves and been back on his game. It's a bit like this time last year. Simmo (Simpson) was here instead of Phil, but they're pretty similar players."

Earlier in the season Nosworthy's hamstring injury saw Danny Higginbotham and Paul McShane as regular centre-half partners and manager Roy Keane's reluctance to use Greg Halford at right-back stretched the Wearsiders' defensive resources.

They conceded seven at Everton, four at home to Manchester United and three against Wigan Athletic. Such has been the change since, Sunderland yesterday allowed Russell Anderson to join Halford and Stanislav Varga in leaving on loan.

"It helps having a proper right-back rather than Deano (Whitehead) or Paul McShane filling in," reasoned Collins, who has not missed a match since August's League Cup exit at Luton Town. "It gives us a bit of balance. We've looked a lot better in recent weeks."

Like Sunderland's supporters, Collins has quickly warmed to Bardsley's combative qualities. "He likes a tackle," he noted. "Birmingham was his debut and he made one or two good tackles which got the fans behind him and probably gave him a bit of confidence. He's a young lad but he's come into it with a lot of confidence and settled in pretty quickly."

Crucially, the Black Cats have not conceded a league goal at home in 2008. "It's okay having all the flair players but it's no good if you don't have lads at the back who can do the job," Collins argued. "It's pleasing that in the last few weeks at home we've had clean sheet after clean sheet.

Hopefully now we can get a few away and the flair players can grab us a goal. The four home wins (in consecutive league games) and the clean sheets have been a plus. It's just the in-betweens. Going away we've seemed to struggle but the performances I don't think have been too bad. Two points (all season) just isn't good enough, though."

This season Keane recruited Ian Harte and took Quinton Fortune on trial. Harte was told last month he could leave and Fortune was not signed. Despite having apparently seen off both, Collins believes the seemingly constant questions over his place are beneficial.

"I see it as competition to push yourself along on the training pitch," he said. "I've got the shirt at the moment but there's competition from Hartey, so if I struggle Hartey will come in. I've got to push myself week in, week out. In the last few weeks I think I've been doing okay but you're only one game away from being dropped. We've got competition all over the park with the squad getting stronger and stronger, especially in the centre of the park."

Anderson has joined Plymouth Argyle on a month's loan after a disastrous start to his Sunderland career. The 29-year-old has made just two first-team appearances since his pounds 1m summer move from Aberdeen - humiliating 3-0 defeats at Luton and Wigan. He was denied the opportunity to make amends by a back injury which had not cleared up until Keane's reinforcements arrived.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 20, 2008
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