Belfast Telegraph

Martin O’Neill: Sunderland's cat who got the cream

By Louise Taylor

Martin O'Neill is reminiscing about a boyhood spent supporting Sunderland. There are vivid recollections of his hero worship of Charlie Hurley and the tears he shed on Boxing Day 1962 when Brian Clough, the team's star striker, suffered an appalling knee injury at a frozen Roker Park.

Eventually, someone asks Sunderland's new manager if he believes it was his destiny to one day take charge of the club he first adopted as a schoolboy in Northern Ireland. “It maybe sounds a bit overblown,” says O'Neill, “but, you know, I'm going to say yes.”

Fresh from chatting to Hurley on the telephone — 75, Sunderland's player of the 20th century lives in Hertfordshire from where he made his good luck call — the former Aston Villa, Celtic and Leicester manager is clearly thrilled to be back at work following an increasingly introspective 16-month sabbatical after departing Villa Park.

On Sunday he took charge for the first time, winning a dramatic match against Blackburn Rovers 2-1 at the Stadium of Light.

“It does give you a wee bit too much time to think about things,” says O'Neill. “You think about life in general; what you should have done with your life. It's bad news.

“If I'd known I was going to be out for 16 months I'd have sat down and attempted to put a few things right. I'd have tried to learn different languages — my Latin doesn't come in too handy these days — and I'd have visited other parts of the world. I've always wanted to go to California, to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but in the end, I didn't do any of those things.”

Not that the 59-year-old one-time law student who learnt much about management while playing for Clough at Nottingham Forest exactly wasted his time.

“I've seen a lot of football,” says O'Neill. “You start to analyse players, positions, formations and tactics. It's made me re-examine things I've done.”

A man who, in the past, found attending criminal trials to be an ideal way of simultaneously relaxing and sharpening the mind, is asked if he cross-examined Ellis Short, Sunderland's chairman, at the job interview.

O'Neill looks slightly startled before offering a characteristically self-deprecating reply. “No, no, absolutely not,” he says. “When I was told Mr Short wanted to talk to me I was extremely excited. I saw it as an incredible opportunity and I didn't want to ruin it. I thought maybe the less I said the better. I didn't want Mr Short to change his mind.”

O'Neill's revelation that transfer budgets were not discussed has prompted surprise. In reality a club which, since 2007, has fielded 78 different first-team players (more than any other Premier League side) desperately requires stability.

“I deliberately didn't discuss buying players,” says a boss aware that his predecessor, Steve Bruce, made 30 signings in the two years that he was in charge of Sunderland.

“I've got to get to know the ones we've got here first — and if nothing develops in January it's not a problem. I didn't take the job because of future promises, I took it because it was Sunderland.”

Indeed, O’Neill was quick to praise Londonderry-born player James McClean — who recently switched allegiance from Northern Ireland to the Republic — after Sunday’s victory.

O'Neill said: “Just at the moment when probably we all need a lift, on comes James McClean and his first move was probably the first time the crowd have seen him, and he was so positive. He played brilliantly in the reserves against Manchester United after a sluggish start in difficult conditions on Thursday evening.

“He wants to get at players — he is so positive and he is young, immature — and that was great, and the crowd took to it.

“But I could go through the team. Young Connor Wickham, for instance, has done two days' training in the five weeks since he was injured. The training in the lead-up to the game wouldn't have been that strenuous, so he has done two days and he was great for us considering.”

Since taking over the Black Cats, O'Neill's voicemail has been busy recording congratulatory messages from fellow managers but, a character adept at politely retaining his distance and keeping people guessing, does not actively court peer group approval.

“There's been a number who congratulated me and a number who didn't,” he says. “But I'm not actually in anybody's little clique; I've never asked to go into those things. There's one or two managers I speak to and I'd consider friends. That wouldn't cover the majority but it's not a problem.”

Instead possibly his biggest difficulty is that Sunderland's training pitches are sited in a notoriously windy spot. If last week has been exceptionally breezy, even in summer the practice ground is rarely calm and he may yet reinforce his squad with several tall additions.

“The wind's a problem,” he says. “I'm thinking about planting some fast growing, environmentally friendly trees.”

The tone may be light-hearted, but O'Neill is already demonstrating a capacity for the sort of lateral thinking all too often conspicuous by its absence on Wearside in recent seasons.

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