Age Concern, Martin O’Neill and that gap between Aston Villa and Sunderland

Sixer by Jake

Before anyone starts, Pete Sixsmith is NOT denouncing Martin O’Neill as too old for the job. He just wonders whether his own late-career experience offers any parallel with that of the Sunderland manager …

Martin O’Neill and I are more or less the same age. Had we been at school together I would have been a year above him, but we are very much part of the same generation that came along after the trials and tribulations of wartime.

Both of us were bitten by the Sunderland bug in our early years at secondary school. My reason for going to Roker Park was a burgeoning friendship with Monsieur Salut, who was seen as the coolest kid in Drybourne Park/Avenue/Diamond Street. He wore suede shoes, carried the NME under his arm and spoke in awed terms of walking down Roker Baths Road to the Elysian Fields on which George Herd, Jimmy Davison and Charlie Hurley wowed the hordes of red and whites.

It was Charlie Hurley who attracted O’Neill, a lad of similar age, to the club. Growing up a Catholic in Derry/Londonderry, he probably took more of an interest in the Eire national side than that of Northern Ireland. Hurley, a giant of a man in every sense, was the national team captain who happened to play for Sunderland, so young Martin chose to support a middling Division One club in Sunderland rather than Manchester United, the choice of most young Irish Catholics (I take it you’re excluding Scotland and Celtic, Pete, but I think Everton get a shout, too – ed).

He went on to study law at Queens in Belfast but mad ehis a career as a top level professional footballer and an iconic manager.

I went on to be the world’s worst goalkeeper and managed to con the authorities into thinking that I was an adequate teacher. But the one thing that linked us over the years was our support of and love for Sunderland AFC.

Then, we both stopped working. I took my pension package and withdrew from work for nine months. He left Villa over a matter of principle and kept out of football until Sunderland came knocking on his door after Steve Bruce’s position as manager became untenable.

Like Martin (if I can presume to call him that), I returned to work, in my case in September, not because I was required to save the school as he was required to save Sunderland, but because there was a roof to repair and some bills to pay.

It was not easy. After a year away from work, I found that although I could still do most aspects of the job, I was monumentally tired at the end of the day. I also found that techniques I had used in the past, with a reasonable amount of success, did not work as effectively as they had. This is partly because the Human Rights Act forbids you from locking young people in cupboards, but also because times have changed and the gilded youth of today are so much more street wise.

Is managing a group of footballers all that different from dealing with disputatious 15 year olds? Well of course it is. If I have a problem with a student, we get his mum and dad in and reminisce and laugh about the good old days, just as Mr Grice, the headteacher in Kes does, when he is about to cane the members of the Smokers’ Union.

Martin cannot do that. Mr and Mrs Johnson cannot be called into the heads office to be told that their son is under achieving and that he will not make the next step up unless he begins to work hard and apply his undoubted talents a bit more constructively.

I don’t see the parents of James McClean being told that if young James persists in using his Twitter account inappropriately, he will be banned from the school football team, nor do I see M Sessegnon being informed that their Stephane is good at French but needs to work harder at his jinking and passing.

Martin O’Neill is a man clearly heavily influenced by Brian Clough who, in turn, was a disciple of Alan Brown, the man who brought him to Sunderland 50 years ago. O’Neill has succeeded in every job he has taken from Grantham Town to Aston Villa.

During that time, he has acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience. He will have made some mistakes but, like many of us, he will draw on how he handled the aftermath of those, when a new problem arises.

But I do wonder how easy is it, when you are 60, to come back into a high pressure job with the same enthusiasm, the same dedication that you had when you were 40 and even 50? After 15 months out of the public eye, how easy is it to have your every decision, your every utterance, dissected by not only proper journalists like M Salut (steady on, Insp Knacker of the Yard will be round banging on my door – ed), but by amateurs like me?

Jake demands a Sunderland that sparkles

See Salut! Sunderland’s sensational buildup to SAFC v Aston Villa: a Villainette from the battered USA in the ‘Who are you?’ hot seat, Guess the Score, snippets from history – and lots more beside. Click anywhere on this paragraph for the home page

I know that when I returned to work, the initial enthusiasm and sheer joy of being seen to be able to do something gradually turned into something much more mundane. The job was done, but the initial spark faded a little as I was worn down by the incessant demands that young people face you with. At 40 I could deal with them and carry on. At 61 I am not so sure. As the Blessed Michael Gove says “Satisfactory is the new poor”.

After a long break from employment, sometimes the mind craves the hurly-burly of the workplace – and then at times it craves the comfort of a favourite chair, a quiet morning and a relaxed lunch.

Older managers, once they lose their jobs as 95 per cent of them do, rarely get taken on again. There are exceptions – Mick McCarthy at Ipswich, for example – Ferguson, Wenger and O’Neill, all men of my generation, are outnumbered by the likes of Paul Lambert, Roberto Di Matteo and Brendan Rodgers, who are all 20 years younger than those who revered Jim Baxter, Just Fontaine and Charlie Hurley.

Martin won’t qualify for his bus pas yet, and he will probably never need to use it, but I just wonder whether at 60, he finds it a harder lob than it was 20 years ago – and whether he has the real desire to succeed?

We may well have a clearer idea after the next five games.

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9 thoughts on “Age Concern, Martin O’Neill and that gap between Aston Villa and Sunderland”

  1. Exactly the same problem we had with MON at the Villa – no faith in his bench and reluctant to blood youngsters (unless he has no choice – see Gabby).

    He is a 4-4-2 man with wingers and really struggles to get away from that, even when the modern game finds that formation so easy to deal with, unless you have giants like Petit & Viera or Keane & Scholes, and he is very little idea of how to mix it up, freshen things either during a game or for new games. We had our best runs as a 4-3-3/4-5-1 as we didn’t have the energy in CM to play a pair (Petrov and Barry must be the least energetic pairing to have played in the PL) and our strikers (well Gabby in particular) played better as a lone striker, but he couldn’t wait to get away from this and back to 4-4-2 even though it was really working.

    I was personally very tired of him towards the end of his time at Villa (not, before you start, that any of his replacements have proved any better …. hopefully PL will given time).

    I wish you well (obviously not this weekend) as I like Sunderland as a club, but I don’t think you have all started to see the weaknesses in MON and the other old saying that his highly relevant is “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

  2. The problems we have now were there a dozen or so games before the end of last season, and seemed to be addressed by buying Fletcher and Johnson. Good management in any job understands problems and resolves them. My main worry is we stick to the same core of players , playing in the same style. O’Neill seems to have no faith in players who sit on the bench, eg Meyler, Campbell, Wickhametc, and is reluctant to try youngsters (Noble, Laing,Egan) . Two wins in the last 20 Prem games is shocking , and we will go down if we don’t improve soon

  3. Mmm, very thought provoking. My retirement from high stress was 3 years ago and the thought of ever having to go back at that level is truly frightening – I couldn’t do it. There are many similarities between the role of Head in a Secondary and managing a Premiership team – the Head having day-to-day responsibility with Governors responsible for long term strategy. Except that the Governors are lay people so the Head/Manager must also take the lead on strategic planning and everything else.
    The education world has changed beyond recognition and repair, courtesy of the tosser aka Gove. The football world also. New Heads are young and data driven, lacking key inter-personal skills (sweeping generalisation, but true enough). Not sure about young Managers though. It has been insightful watching Being Liverpool. Rogers talks a good game, but when dissected, he says nothing of any value. In fact he talks bollocks.
    I certainly wasn’t interested in Hughes. If we didn’t have O’Neill, who else is there? He seems passionate enough, certainly intelligent and a decent bloke. I trust him. But I have no idea why we are playing like we are and, short (Short?) of throwing millions at players – most of which would be wasted – what anyone can do? I have previously mentioned a ‘glass ceiling’ for Sunderland, we seem to be doomed to be in constant fear of the very lower reaches of the Premiership.
    Just realised that I am now rambling, but maybe there just isn’t an answer. A win on Saturday is more than a mere must. I suspect we have all said that most weeks.

  4. It’s worth bearing in mind that if some of us (myself, alas, included) had had our way, Sunderland would have passed over O’Neill in favour of Mark Hughes — a relative youngster celebrating his 49th birthday today. He’s been no gift to QPR, though, and may well have been just as bad for us. So we should perhaps breathe at least a shallow sigh of relief for the devil we know…

  5. Point taken, Ian, but he has not taken two breaks from football and MON has – once to be with his ill wife and once after he left Villa.
    It can be difficult going back to a high intensity job at 60 after a spell off. I could be completely wrong and the players (who certainly need to take some responsibility) will click on Saturday.
    Football is not an exact science – if it were, we would soon get bored with it. Unfortunately, a lot of us are getting pretty bored with it now.

  6. Age affects different people in different ways. Sir Alex Ferguson is older than MON.
    You could also look at it and say, “MON has more experience accrued over the years in man management and tactics.”
    And, his age wasn’t an issue a few months ago when he was leading a truly phenomenal sunderland revival.
    Simple fact is that our midfield are all on bad form at the same time and no-one is creating. Also, I think MON, for me, is a little too defensive. We’re not getting beat much (!), but we’re not slamming the goals home because we are defensive minded and not getting into the box as much as we should.
    My hope is, now that Bard is back, Gardner moves into midfield and is told “get in and around the box and shoot”.

  7. Oneil has one game plan which is the 80’s way.. he is a good manager and a great motivator for making average players play better then they are.. but he wasted millions upon million at Villa on the likes of harewood heskey reo coker sidwell beye shorey warnock cuellar curtis davies..

  8. Ouch! They say the truth often hurts and there are some painful verities here (except for the bit about M Salut being cool – I remember those suede shoes). Age and weariness catch up with us all and I’m sure Colin would agree that there’s not the same joy in journalism as there used to be. It takes a lot longer to build up the energy. So it is with Pete and teaching and so, as he says, it may well be with MON and football. Time will tell though, of course, time is also running out. With no youthful managerial prodigy on the horizon, I’m pinning my faith for now on the old saying: “Old age and treachery beats youth and skill every time.” There’s truth in that for journalists and probably for teachers, so maybe it also applies to football managers. We can only hope.

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