Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Sunderland have sacked a quality manager in Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill parted company with Sunderland after 16 months in charge
Martin O'Neill parted company with Sunderland after 16 months in charge

You might say it is just another statistic in the mass of them listed under the Premier League propensity for panic but this one demands an asterisk. And as it is placed against the name of Martin O'Neill make it a big one.

Sunderland's American owner Ellis Short, who has not been niggardly in his financial support of the club, will no doubt say that he has fired O'Neill for the same reason he disposed of Roy Keane and Steve Bruce.

 

It is that he had a large investment to protect and that in all of football no change of circumstances is more perilous than relegation from the Premier League. Not even, Short rather astoundingly seems to believe, the appointment of the ultimately volatile Paolo Di Canio.

 

However, in parting with O'Neill after just 16 months the serially frustrated owner has surely had his most convulsive moment. This time, as that asterisk must declare, he has parted with one of the most outstanding football men of his generation.

 

Yes, it is true there is no question that Sunderland's situation had become critical even before Manchester United's 1-0 victory pushed them to the lip of the drop zone, a fate that might just have been eased by the presence of O'Neill's key forward, the injured Steven Fletcher, in a more boisterous second-half performance. But what the American is saying is that O'Neill, with seven games left, is no longer the best available man to protect his club's status.

 

It is the American's money and his call but the briefest examination of O'Neill's record says it is an extremely big one. Big? It becomes huge as Di Canio's candidacy, in which some success at Swindon Town has to be balanced against a record of uncharted and often quite bizarre behaviour, carries him into O'Neill's old chair.

 

Indeed, if you do not believe that the Irishman has in the course of a few months lost all those qualities that for so long underpinned a career that always promised great distinction, there is reason to believe that the Sunderland decision is somewhat on the wild side of rash.

 

O'Neill inherited an embattled team at the Stadium of Light and he galvanised it, earning along the way a stream of tributes from the dressing room.

 

One of his most notable advocates was the Swedish midfielder Sebastian Larsson, who spoke of a man of great subtlety and wit, someone who could dig down and find new points of inspiration. If that capacity is still in any kind of working order, it might have carried a lot of value these next few weeks, when his former players will be facing not so much moments of truth but one continuous stream of serious investigation.

 

Another Larsson, the great Henrik, is on the record in even more glowing terms than his compatriot Seb. When Neil Lennon was leading his old club Celtic to glory this season against Barcelona – for whom Henrik Larsson produced a brilliant game-changing cameo in the 2006 Champions League final – the Swede said that his former team-mate's goal had to be to match the influence and the leadership of O'Neill.

 

"When I was at Celtic," said Larsson, "Martin O'Neill was everything you wanted in a coach and a manager. He could make you feel ready to compete with any team. If Neil Lennon can match that over a few years he will be doing brilliantly."

 

Short might mutter the word "history", and, in his own context, the ancient variety, but there is some irony in the fact that the sword stroke that might have brought the end of O'Neill's career was delivered by the septuagenarian Sir Alex Ferguson. The greatest regime in modern English football history was threatened when Ferguson, who had a record of impressively consistent club-building, most spectacularly at Aberdeen, before arriving at Old Trafford struggled for a while to make the big breakthrough.

 

At that point in the late 1980s Ferguson benefited from the support of Sir Bobby Charlton, who told his fellow United directors: "You cannot turn your back on a man of such quality. Where do you go if you do?"

 

Short, having taken the decision against which Charlton argued so passionately at Old Trafford, has apparently gone to Di Canio and a brand of charisma which some former associates have tended to liken to nitroglycerine.

 

Meanwhile, there has to be a poignant sense that O'Neill at 61, for whom Sunderland and Celtic were the clubs of his boyhood devotion, might have to settle for a fine and frequently inspiring career rather than the great one which seemed to be unfolding in his commanding days in Glasgow.

 

He went there with an unblemished record of success, first at Wycombe, which might be said to be his Di Canio phase, albeit a hugely more constrained one, then at Leicester, which he turned into a formidable Premier League team and League Cup winners.

 

Feeding openly on the influence of his old mentor, Brian Clough, with whom he won the league title and the European Cup, he was unlucky at Celtic not to beat Jose Mourinho's Porto in the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville.

 

O'Neill's teams have never played purist football but it has been marked by intensity and a certain degree of craft. We saw it work again at Aston Villa before another American owner, Randy Lerner, and O'Neill disagreed over a new policy of strict financial restraint.

 

For a while many earmarked him for the Old Trafford succession, but that was before Ferguson made it clear he intended to manage for ever, and when he beat a string of top teams, including Liverpool and Barcelona, in his Celtic days, Anfield also seemed to beckon. There was certainly a Shanklyesque passion and quirkiness. He knew the most important secret of the game, it seemed: he knew how to get players of the quality of Henrik Larsson to produce consistently the best of themselves.

 

Yet football, like life, is not always seamless, whatever the level of your talent. The serious illness of O'Neill's wife, Geraldine, eight years ago demanded a period away from the trenches.

 

It also, perhaps, provides the kind of perspective which might have been necessary when he first heard that Paolo Di Canio was the favourite to take his job.