Martin O’Neill faces a defining seven weeks

by Ciaran Kelly

As well as often overachieving throughout his managerial career, Martin O’Neill has always left clubs of his own volition.

After three successive promotions as a rookie manager with Wycombe, O’Neill left to take charge of Norwich. At Norwich, O’Neill wished to sign Dean Windass for £750,000 in December, 1995 but was prohibited by Robert Chase, the club’s then chairman, and resigned. Undeterred, O’Neill, fatefully and immediately, left for Leicester, took them into the Premier League and won two League Cups: becoming the club’s most successful manager of all-time.

Having previously rejected overtures from Leeds, O’Neill eventually left Leicester for Celtic in June, 2000. In his greatest managerial spell to date – following the disaster of the John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish ‘dream’ ticket – O’Neill won three titles, four domestic cups and re-established Celtic as a dogged European force. Thus, following his admirable decision to care for his wife, Geraldine, and her battle with lymphoma, O’Neill returned to football with Aston Villa in August, 2006.

For many, this paradoxical spell defines O’Neill as a manager: achieving Villa’s best results and goalscoring tallies for nearly thirty years, but badly choking after having a seven-point lead in 4thplace ahead of Arsenal in the latter half of 2008/2009; spending huge amounts of money on the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, Luke Young and Carlos Cuéllar, but Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing going on to make Randy Lerner a handsome profit years later; and, seemingly selfishly, leaving Villa in the lurch just four days before the beginning of the 2010/2011 season over inadequate transfer funds.

Still, O’Neill, in trademark style, did the firefighter role impressively in his first six months with his boyhood club, Sunderland, in 2011/2012. Using Clough-like simplicity with his tactical instructions and confidence-restoring inspiration, O’ Neill eroded the worrying concentration failures of Sunderland under his predecessor, Steve Bruce. From this, O’Neill improved Sunderland’s shape, set-piece organisation, pacey counter-attacking and defensive resolve massively.

Building on that, though – having been tasked with ‘simply’ keeping Sunderland up last season – has proved difficult for O’Neill. Admittedly, Ellis Short’s new plans for financial sustainability – whereby support has been targeted in both Africa and Asia, reflected in a sponsorship deal with “Invest in Africa” and a trek to the Peace tournament in South Korea – dictated Sunderland’s haggling and slow business in the transfer market.

After all, by 21 August, Sunderland had only signed Cuéllar – who arrived on a free transfer from Aston Villa. However, the eventual move away from this, initial, conservative spending revealed two contrasting notes: O’Neill wishes to propel Sunderland up the table with big-money investment, much like at Villa; but, equally, his wish to sign inflated, yet conservative and trustworthy, British signings have become a crutch of sorts in his managerial career.

The big-money signings of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher reflect a clear change in objectives, which, at the very least, is surely to challenge for a place in the top ten, but Sunderland have looked blunt, stifled, predictable and uninspiring so far this season. After all, last season’s epitome of O’Neill’s methods, James McClean, has now symbolised the difficulty of sustained consistency.

Sure much of McClean’s generation in Ireland empathised with his stance in Poppygate, but McClean has struggled to retain the humility and sensibility that made him such a success with Derry City.

After all, this is the man who admirably rejected Lincoln and joined the ‘new’ Derry City in November, 2009; but, stubbornly, has failed to work on his weaker right foot, which has led to full-backs finally realising how the danger, but lop-sidedness, of McClean is quelled when he is not dribbling with his left foot.

O’Neill’s use of Craig Gardner and Danny Rose/Jack Colback at full-back, too, has been curious – particularly after O’Neill so readily let Kieron Richardson leave for Fulham – with the pair not offering the struggling Johnson and McClean the attacking overlap that is such a crucial part to these wingers’ success.

Along with O’Neill’s fairly ineffective use of Sebastian Larsson in central midfield, Sunderland have been left tactically ragged, individual-centered and their star player, Stéphane Sessègnon , is creatively over-burdened.

Sure, Sunderland’s defensive shape without the ball remains decent, given that the Black Cats rarely dominate possession under O’Neill, but their spring-offensive, phased play – with McClean, Johnson, Larsson and Sessegnon not effortlessly inter-changing of late – has been poor and has been one of the main reasons for a lack of goalscoring opportunities.

Also, as well as the failure of McClean/Johnson to switch flanks effectively, a lack of attacking support from teammates has accentuated Johnson’s Robben-like selfishness of beating his marker, seeing the lights and electing to cut inside and shoot.

Sure, Simon Mignolet and Fletcher remain bright spots but Sunderland have become over-reliant on the pair, with Fletcher the last Sunderland player before Adam Johnson (against Everton on 10 November) to score a league goal (29 September, against Wigan) and Mignolet having little cover from the fairly static John O’Shea and Cueller of late.

O’Neill’s general, Lee Catermole, too, has been unable to rally his teammates and since his often underrated command went needlessly awry in receiving a three-match ban after the 0-2 Capital Cup third-round victory over MK Dons on 25 September, Sunderland’s performances have stagnated.

With growing discontent from expectant fans after Sunderland’s 0-1 League Cup exit to local rivals Middlesbrough on 30 October and eight season-defining league fixtures in the next seven weeks- with Fulham, West Brom, QPR, Norwich, Chelsea, Reading, Manchester United and Southampton all to be played by 22 December – O’Neill is under massive pressure.

After all, one win in the previous eighteen league games is the kind of form that cost Bruce his job and is a stark contrast to the admirable nine wins O’Neill achieved in his first eighteen league matches with Sunderland.

In truth, O’Neill has not known this kind of dog fight pressure – all of his own volition, rather than being Bruce-influenced like last – throughout his whole career. As a result, a failure to channel those first eighteen performances of last season in the second-half of his career so far with Sunderland will not only lead to O’Neill prematurely walking away from the Stadium of Light, but, also, formally confirming that the sixty-year old’s dream of eventually moving to an English club in the Champions League is firmly over.

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