Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

We've not seen the last of 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

On Saturday I wrote about Martin O'Neill's future as Sunderland manager. The piece ended with the words: "Martin needs to prove he still has the midas touch to save Sunderland's season – and probably his job."

He wasn't given much time to prove it, was he?

Clearly Sunderland's American owner Ellis Short felt the former Northern Ireland captain HAD lost his 'midas touch' and dismissed him after Saturday's hardly unexpected 1-0 defeat to Premier League champions-elect Manchester United, which saw the north east outfit continue an alarming slide towards the relegation zone.

As 61-year-old O'Neill left the club he supported as a kid growing up in Kilrea, he reflected that it was the first time he had been sacked in what has been a long and largely successful managerial career.

The proud Ulsterman must have been bitterly hurt at how his time at the Stadium of increasing Darkness ended in such abrupt and unsatisfactory fashion, with some suggesting this most fascinating of characters would never manage again.

O'Neill felt that despite Sunderland's problems this season he was still capable of taking the club forward, harbouring hopes that the Black Cats, by bringing the right players in during the summer, could in time do what Everton had consistently achieved in recent years and challenge for a place in the top six.

We'll never know if those ambitions would have been realised under O'Neill.

He deserved the chance to steer Sunderland out of trouble, which he successfully achieved when appointed at the struggling club midway through last season.

The timing of his departure, with seven games remaining, came as a surprise, but shouldn't we have learned by now not to be shocked by anything that happens in the cut-throat, ruthless world of modern day football?

After all, other top flight bosses like Brian McDermott at Reading and Nigel Adkins at Southampton, who merited better treatment, had recently been dumped quicker than Jennifer Aniston when Angelina Jolie pouted her lips in Brad Pitt's direction.

With so many millions in TV money ready to be banked for being part of English football's elite, relegation to the Championship or even the fear of it has become less desirable than turkey and ham at a vegan dinner party! Owners, most of them foreign, are more trigger happy than ever when their place at the top table is threatened.

Sunderland were on a slippery slope. They had not won since January 19, were playing poor football under O'Neill, who seemed to be missing his friend and long time coach John Robertson in the dug-out and, entering the final crucial stretch of the season, were without top scorer Stephen Fletcher.

One expected O'Neill, the master motivator, who had delivered previously at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa, to once again show his worth and provide the inspiration to keep Sunderland in the promised land.

He didn't get the chance and, harsh as it seems, he'll be considered a failure on Wearside now.

It was, of course, during his time at Celtic, who he guided to domestic glory and a UEFA Cup final, that his star shone brightest.

There was a strong feeling in the game that he was being lined up to become the next Manchester United boss when Sir Alex Ferguson said he was stepping down at the end of the 2001-2002 campaign.

O'Neill, back then approaching 50, was respected and admired at Old Trafford and considered to be ideal for the job.

But Cathy, Sir Alex's wife, told her hubby she didn't want him hanging around the house all day and the rest is history – the Scot stayed at United and O'Neill's opportunity had gone.

He was also linked to the Liverpool job, but never got close at Anfield and somehow, for reasons best known to the FA, he missed out on taking charge of England to Steve McClaren!

Northern Ireland fans have long since wanted him to manage our wee country.

The latest occasion came when Nigel Worthington jumped before he was pushed leaving a vacancy. O'Neill, out of work at the time, said thanks but no thanks declaring he wanted one last crack at club management. It came with Sunderland. Now he's free again, so if Michael O'Neill fails to improve results, the Irish FA could make one final attempt to lure the Espana 1982 skipper to Windsor Park.

Don't be surprised if the FAI get there first with a contract, though, as Giovanni Trapattoni will soon say arrivederci to the Republic of Ireland post.

There will be other offers too, including from TV companies hoping to employ O'Neill to air his expert views. He's been there before with the Beeb and proved extremely popular, especially when winding up Alan Hansen.

BT, who will show a host of major Premier League matches next season, need a big hitter like O'Neill to rival Gary Neville at Sky. And surely it would be tempting for ITV chiefs to place O'Neill next to another former Sunderland boss, Roy Keane, in their studio. How riveting and unpredictable would that be?

O'Neill's next move will be interesting. The Sunderland experience ended terribly, but I have a hunch we haven't seen the last of Martin.

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