Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

How golden boy Martin O'Neill lost Midas touch

It's 26 years since Martin O'Neill first stepped into football management. Grantham Town and Shepshed Charterhouse may not carry a great deal of glamour, but they were important staging posts on O'Neill's journey to the top.

In that time he's spent less than 30 months out of work – with half of that taken up by a self-imposed break as he took care of his sick wife Geraldine.

During his periods of unemployment – brief as they were – O'Neill was never far from the headlines.

Every high profile managerial vacancy that came up brought mention of his name. Some jobs were even considered to be his to turn down.

That was certainly the case when Sunderland came calling in December 2011 after they sacked Steve Bruce.

Having supported the club as a boy in his native Kilrea, O'Neill was never going to say no and it seemed a marriage made in heaven.

The honeymoon period couldn't have gone better. In his first six games in charge the Black Cats won four and lost only one.

That initial bounce that often comes with a new managerial appointment was higher than he could have expected.

One of those victories came against eventual champions Manchester City via a last minute goal – a sign of the never-say-die spirit and attitude that O'Neill had quickly instilled in his new charges.

That was on New Year's Day 2012. There was a similar result against City on Boxing Day, but in almost 12 months between those games the rot set in and the ultimate fall was a painful one.

Many observers look to just this season as being the period where Sunderland hit a slump, but it actually goes a lot further back than that.

After a defeat to Everton in the FA Cup quarter-final a year ago the team finished the season with just one win in eight games.

They then failed to win any of the first eight in the current campaign.

There was no panic from O'Neill. The man who captained Northern Ireland during the memorable 1982 World Cup campaign in Spain has never been one to suffer from self-doubt.

Just five months ago he spelt out in one interview: "Not only am I the best man for this job, I'm actually the only man for the job."

Following that with: "I once really doubted myself before I sat my 11-plus, honestly. I didn't know whether I was going to pass or not, but then I was only seven at the time. I did pass."

Now, after his sacking by Sunderland on Saturday night the doubt that surrounds Martin is whether he will ever again top the short-lists of chairmen around the country when they find themselves with a managerial vacancy.

Sunderland owner Ellis Short decided that his time was up. It remains to be seen if that's it for good for Martin in football management at the age of 61.

Other clubs will look at his tenure with Sunderland. Some might think that he wasn't given enough time to sort things out – just 16 months – others will possibly consider that he didn't do well enough.

Managers are judged on two key things. Firstly results. If they are fine then everything else will be largely overlooked. If not the second criteria comes into play – his dealings in the transfer market.

As already explained, Martin's results, to put it simply, weren't great.

His signings were hit and miss too.

The £12m capture of Stephen Fletcher from Wolves was a decent bit of business. When nobody else could find the net he did, scoring a third of the team's goals this season. Injury has ruled him out for the rest of the campaign though which is a major concern.

Adam Johnson was signed for £10m from Manchester City. He scored the goal that beat his old club back in December, but he's done little or nothing since then.

Considering that the most Sunderland have ever spent on a player was £13m for Asamoah Gyan, Johnson has been an expensive flop.

It's one thing saying that with an extra £30m pouring into the coffers of the 20 Premier League clubs next season when the new television deal kicks in O'Neill could have been given more money to bolster a squad he said was short of "real, true quality" but if he was already buying badly would he have then thrown good money after bad?

There are even suggestions that the players O'Neill allowed to leave the Stadium of Light last summer would have done better than those he either brought in or kept.

That's an easy, and unfair, criticism to level at him when there will never be an answer.

And now, Martin may not get a chance to answer his critics either.