Belfast Telegraph

Steven Beacom: Sunderland job will be Martin O'Neill's toughest test yet

Welcome back to the frustrations, joy and pain of football management Martin. And good luck mate, because taking charge of the current Sunderland side you are going to need it.

The Mackems should have won yesterday's crucial Premier League clash with fellow strugglers Wolves comfortably, yet ended up surrendering the lead and then losing 2-1 at a rain-soaked Molineux.

Martin O'Neill, fresh with a three year contract to manage the club he supported as a boy, was watching from the stands, no doubt thinking he has much work ahead.

He relishes a challenge. Well, he's got one.

The Black Cats are lucky that Blackburn, Bolton and Wigan are so poor, otherwise Sunderland would be in the bottom three in the top flight table. As it is, they are only one point above the relegation places.

Yesterday gave an indication why.

Agreed, they showed glimpses of quality in a fast and frenetic encounter, but the north east outfit lacked a killer instinct at one end and an ability to defend at the other, allowing Steven Fletcher (pictured) to score twice late on to earn Wolves the |victory.

And this after Kieran Richardson had put the visitors in front on 52 minutes with a superb finish, climaxing a lightning quick counter-attack which started in their own box.

Surprise, surprise Wes Brown was the chief culprit at the back for the Wearsiders, who were under the control of coach Eric Black, before O'Neill got stuck into his new post this morning.

Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't make a player out of Brown when he was at Manchester United, so O'Neill will have his work cut out there.

Mind you, he turned Robbie Savage into something resembling a footballer at Leicester City, so I guess anything is possible.

Still, even allowing for Martin's legendary man-management and motivational skills, which have inspired the average to become impressive, I'll be stunned if the canny 59-year-old doesn't buy a new centre-back, along with a few other players, in January when he is handed a £20m treasure chest.

Brown isn't the only weak link. It's going to be intriguing to see how the ex-Celtic and Aston Villa boss deals with the likes of Nicklas Bendtner and Sebastian Larsson who throughout their careers have offered more questions than answers.

Yesterday Larsson blatantly dived in the box when Sunderland led 1-0 but referee Phil Dowd fell for it, deciding that Jody Craddock had brought him down. It was a poor decision, though when you are struggling for results you take anything you can get.

Presented with the ideal opportunity to claim a precious victory, justice was done when Larsson's weak penalty was saved by Wayne Hennessey.

Thirty seconds later when Brown misjudged the flight of a cross, Fletcher headed in a 73rd minute equaliser.

With just nine minutes left Brown failed to clear another delivery and the same Wolves player took advantage striking home after the ball sat up for him via Jamie O'Hara's shoulder.

Wolves had won to the relief of boss Mick McCarthy, who could tell O'Neill a thing or two about the pressures and expectation of managing Sunderland.

Patience is not a virtue on Wearside, especially if Newcastle are going well, as O'Neill's predecessor Steve Bruce found out last weekend after a crushing home defeat to Wigan.

The dismissed Bruce had only gained two league victories this season.

Not good enough for Sunderland, who genuinely believe they should be fighting for European places.

That's a lofty ambition, but O'Neill guided Aston Villa to sixth spot three times in the Premier League and Sunderland are the same size of club.

Before fulfiling those dreams, the former Northern Ireland skipper must steer clear of relegation trouble.

He begins the latest chapter in his distinguished career at home to Blackburn on Sunday. It's a massive game. O'Neill has delivered for underperforming teams before and if anyone can lift the darkness at the Stadium of Light, it's him.

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