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Martin O’Neill: “Top class” manager manages to shatter his reputation at Sunderland

03 Apr 2013, 18:34 IST

After succumbing to Robin Van Persie’s deflected winner against Manchester United on Saturday afternoon, if football clubs were soap operas, Sunderland’s storyline has exploded. Chairman Ellis Short decided to dispense with Martin O’Neill, with his guidance leaving Sunderland teetering perilously close to the relegation spots in the midst of 0 wins in their last 9 games, to replace him with Paolo Di Canio, complete with all the controversy and volatility that travels with the Italian.

Suddenly, after a year and a half in charge of Swindon Town, Di Canio’s political views have now become an issue now he is a Premier League manager. It now seems to be vogue to pass comment at his fascist leanings and his sympathy towards former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, which the contrastive coach has made no secret of in the past.

Ex-Labour MP David Miliband has stepped down from his position as vice-chairman whilst a local coal-mining group has requested a sign be taken down in the stadium, actions suggestive of the negative connotations that comes in the Di Canio package. It is a move designed by the club to motivate a team in decline but he will also ensure confrontation and discord if his stint at Swindon is any indication, traits that will be subject to the intensified scrutiny of one of the biggest leagues in Europe.

That is something Sunderland will have to deal with in the future however, whilst it is the past and the departing Martin O’Neill that is being, understandably, overshadowed by Di Canio’s turbulent arrival, but it is no less interesting. Has this been the stint that has finally broken the media’s fondness of the Irishman as a manager that Alan Hansen described on Sunday as being “top-class”?

O’Neill comes with a reputation of success, given his work with Wycombe, who he led to successive promotions from the Conference in the early 90?s, and then Leicester, whom he turned into a solid mid-table Premier League team along with 2 League Cup triumphs just before the turn of the millennium. He won 7 trophies in five years at Celtic as well as leading them to a UEFA Cup final, before returning to England where he steered Villa from a stale, receding Premier League outfit to a young, vibrant force that achieved three consecutive sixth place finishes.

Short thought the Irishman could have the same galvanising effect on a Sunderland side that had slipped into a frightening lull under Steve Bruce. They had taken just 11 points from their first 14 games last season before O’Neil’s impact initially pulled them safe with seven wins from his opening 12 games in charge of the Wear-side club. Yet, it proved to be a false dawn as the season tailed off with a run of just 2 wins in 14.

The financial backing he received in the summer to sign Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson to the tune of £22 million may have provided a tonic, but whilst Fletcher shone, scoring 11 of Sunderland’s 33 goals before his recent injury, Johnson has struggled on the periphery of O’Neill’s narrow 4-4-1-1.

It is a system designed to soak pressure and hit teams on the counter attack, yet the likes of Johnson, Sebastien Larsson and James McClean have all struggled to provide the pace needed for it to work effectively. Only goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and left-back Danny Rose, on loan from Spurs, are the two Sunderland players to emerge with any credit from a sluggish campaign.

A further £5 million was handed over in January for O’Neill to spend on Danny Graham but he has yet to score, whilst the Irishman has failed to retrieve consistent form from the frustrating Stephane Sessegnon. He has ignored Connor Wickham, the 20 year old whom Bruce signed for £8 million to score just once in 2 years at the Stadium of Light. The experience of Carlos Cuellar and John O’Shea at the back hasn’t managed to stop 43 goals being shipped while the disastrous Titus Bramble is, inexplicably, still being trusted to play at the highest level. The side, so often unable to change from a plan A, has hinted at a manager too set in his ways to adapt to a modern game where innovation is key.


O’Neill still relied on the unreliable Bramble.

Johnson has resembled a reckless outlay of money similar to O’Neill’s time at Villa, where he racked up a wage bill that accounted for 88 per cent of the club’s annual turnover. The Midlands club posted losses of £37 million in 2010, the last of O’Neill’s four years at Villa Park and Randy Lerner, having personally underwritten £200 million into the club to fend off financial implosion, is still counting the cost of his forced down-sizing as a young, transitional Villa lurk on the edge of relegation with O’Neill leaving Sunderland just a point above his old side in 16th.

Perhaps the aftermath of a defeat to the runaway league leaders wasn’t the best time to rid O’Neill of his duties but it was hard to avoid the feeling of stagnation that had crept in under the Irishman that no longer deserves to trade on his reputation alone. O’Neill departs the north east with a record of just 21 wins in 66 matches, an underwhelming stint that may go someway to shattering the common misconception that the Irishman is, as Hansen claims, “top class”.

His successor is finding out that reputations can proceed you in this game but in different circumstances. In matters relating to achievement only, the same should apply to O’Neill, having achieved only relative mediocrity and failure considering the money he has been afforded to spend.

The media has always held the former law student in such high esteem and it is becoming increasingly hard to justify.

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