Belfast Telegraph

How Martin O'Neill transformed Sunderland

By Martin Hardy

Martin O'Neill's insistence during his unveiling as Sunderland manager that he had not mentioned a possible January transfer budget with Ellis Short, the club owner and chairman, before accepting the position, surprised many.

It appeared either brave or naïve; Sunderland, after all, had won one of their previous eight games before Steve Bruce's dismissal. There were calls for further investment. Relegation was becoming a real issue.

Those fears seem unnecessarily alarmist now. On Tuesday night at the DW Stadium, O'Neill led his new charges to their fourth victory in six games. They also moved into the Premier League top10 for the first time this season. How has O'Neill done it?

Clean slate: A fresh start for Lee Cattermole

O'Neill could have wiped his hands of Lee Cattermole; instead he has wiped the slate clean. Within seconds of Sunday's astonishing victory against Manchester City, O'Neill was on the pitch with his arm around his inspirational captain, offering words of encouragement. Cattermole had felt the world was against him in the closing stages of Bruce's reign. Now, he looks like a weight is lifting off his shoulders. This is a quiet Sunderland team and it has needed the former Middlesbrough and Wigan midfielder at his boisterous (and controlled) best.

O'Neill, by not turning on Cattermole after he was arrested on suspicion of damaging cars in Newcastle, has invigorated a player who looked lost. Without the bookings, Cattermole was a player who caught Liverpool's eye two summers ago. O'Neill seems to have remembered that.

Answers inside: Dipping into the reserves

By the end for Bruce, the round holes were getting bigger and the square pegs were dropping through. Moving players into different positions no longer appeared to be working. O'Neill has found more in reserve. From pitching up three days into his reign at a rain-soaked Eppleton CW ground to see his second XI beat Manchester United 6-3, he has pulled rabbits from unlikely hats. Centre-half Matthew Kilgallon is resurrecting his career, making his first start for Sunderland (after loan spells at Middlesbrough and Doncaster) in 20 months at Wigan.

Jack Colback has moved seamlessly to left-back, Craig Gardner to right-back and James McClean has been a revelation since his Premier League debut as a substitute against Blackburn. O'Neill promised to look within first for answers. He has stood by his word and the club has benefited for it.

One of us: Managing the club you supported

O'Neill had to lift up his tracksuit bottom trouser leg shortly after he took over at the Stadium of Light to prove he does not have a Sunderland badge tattooed above his ankle, but that it was part of Wearside folklore is hugely significant. O'Neill, as has been well chronicled, was a Sunderland fan as a child because of his adoration for Charlie Hurley, the big Irish central defender. Sunderland fans knew all about it long before he took over. They feel he is one of them.

O'Neill gave the reason (there may be others) for the non-tattoo as his hatred of needles. It always needled, unfairly of course, with Sunderland fans that his predecessor was from north of the river Tyne and had supported Newcastle as a child. The rivalry between the two clubs grows with each season and Bruce suffered as much as anyone because of it.

Mr Motivator: Players tap into his energy

"The players don't feel they can be beaten at the moment," said O'Neill. "I'm delighted with the spirit of the team. They feed off each other."

The manager is calling on every ounce of commitment from his players and he is rewarding it with fulsome praise. He constantly talks of energy and courage. There has been no criticism or negativity from the moment he walked in, the situation was too delicate for that. The players have bought into his energy, huddling around him in freezing training sessions to listen to his words. They are told they are world beaters and it has produced staggering results.

McClean, though signed by Bruce in the summer, had not played before O'Neill's arrival. "He's lifted everyone around the club," he said. "He's given us all a new lease of life, so it's huge credit to him. He's a remarkable manager."

Reputation: A man held in the highest esteem

Sir Bobby Charlton spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson in this newspaper in a tribute for the Manchester United manager's 70th birthday on Saturday. He also admitted that O'Neill's name had been mentioned as a possible replacement when Ferguson first planned to retire.

It is easy to forget the esteem in which O'Neill has been held throughout his managerial career. England and Old Trafford were always seen as ports of call on his career map at some point; it is some calibre of manager Sunderland found after a 16-month exile.

The break has recharged O'Neill. He is not talking (or arguing) about money. Instead he has refocused his main managerial skills – his enthusiasm, his motivation and man-management methods – and people are realising that the signing of this season may be someone in the dugout.

The O'Neill effect

Sunderland were 18th with 11 points before O'Neill's first match...

Record before O'Neill took over:

22 Oct Bolton (a) Won 2-0

29 Oct A Villa (h) Drew 2-2

5 Nov Man United (a) Lost 1-0

19 Nov Fulham (h) Drew 0-0

26 Nov Wigan (h) Lost 2-1

4 Dec Wolves (a) Lost 2-1

Points (out of 18): 2

Record since O'Neill in charge:

11 Dec Blackburn (h) Won 2-1

18 Dec Spurs (a) Lost 1-0

21 Dec QPR (a) Won 3-2

26 Dec Everton (h) Drew 1-1

New Year's Day Man City (h) Won 1-0

Tuesday Wigan (a) Won 4-1

Points (out of 18): 13

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