Martin O’Neill’s sacking as Sunderland manager on Saturday evening marked an extraordinary turnaround from the appointment of the “Messiah” 15 months ago.
Avid Sunderland fan O’Neill, was the man Niall Quinn & Co chose to succeed the departed Steve Bruce, and push the Black Cats to the next level. Few would have blamed them for making the appointment; in fact, many would have been envious of the club appointing a man with such an outstanding C.V. Leading Celtic to 3 Scottish Premier League titles, 3 Scottish Cups and a League Cup is no mean feat after years of Glasgow Rangers’ dominance, as well as reaching the UEFA Cup final. In England he led Wycombe Wanderers to 4 trophies in 5 years and then Leicester City to 2 League Cups and promotion to the Premier League. But it was his work at Aston Villa that really caught the eye; a League Cup final defeat to contentious penalty against Manchester United, and regularly challenging for a top 4 finish with UEFA/Europa League qualification almost a definite. Failing to reach the Champions League was a minor, if at all, blemish to his excellent Villa era.
So with all that experience, in Europe and domestically, it was seen as a real coup for Sunderland to get their man. So what went wrong?
His impact on arrival was instant, with the Black Cats picking up 13 points from his first 6 games. Seeing off eventual champions Manchester City 1-0 on New Year’s Day and collecting the Manager of the Month award for December were great catalysts for steering the club away from relegation and to safety. O’Neill was getting the best out of the young crop of players that failed under Steve Bruce; Stephane Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and James McClean were firing on all cylinders, and the team looked to be enjoying their game once again.
In the summer, big money acquisitions Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson arrived from Wolves and Manchester City respectively. The expectance of the fans were growing, a European place at the end of the season seemed inevitable.
After a great goal scoring start to the season, Fletcher has suffered a real dip in form, as well as niggling injuries. The pressure of being the only top marksman at the club is taking its toll. Danny Graham’s arrival from Swansea was aimed to ease Fletcher’s burden, but with little success so far, and Connor Wickham’s integration has slowed to a level so far away from his early promise. James McClean’s form has been near non existent from the level of performances he terrorised defences with last year. The same can be said with Sebastian Larsson, Craig Gardner and the experienced back line. The only shining light has been the form of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, heavily tipped to leave the Stadium of Light this summer.
So with a healthy mix of youth and experience, Premier League and Champions League winners amongst their ranks, the real issue at Sunderland is the confidence. At its lowest, it is the most difficult emotion to counteract in sport, especially in team sport. When one or two players start losing confidence, it quickly moves around the rest of the team like the common cold. Restoring that confidence though, is down to the Manager and his man-managing skills. Winning just 7 games in 31 was just too far from where the club were looking to be, with no signs of the slump ending. Failing to add more attacking options in January may just be where the luck ran out. If Martin O’Neill can’t get the team he loves, playing with confidence again, then maybe Ellis Short made the right decision. And for the fans, just don’t look towards Wolverhampton Wanderers for inspiration.