O’Neill One Year On: (5) remember, remember the 4th of December (walloping Chelsea)

Jake gets the gaffer's point. Do the players?

In the final part of Salut! Sunderland‘s mini series looking back at Martin O’Neill’s first year at the Stadium of Light (read the first four via the home page) Pete Sixsmith recalls Decembers of the past, one when the Lads put in a performance to remember, helped in no small part by an unsung Frenchman, another when a feisty Irishman called it a day and finally one which saw the arrival of another saviour, this time from the northern part of the Emerald Isle.

Sixer gives his thoughts on yer man’s first 12 months …


Pete looks back to Decembers past ...

December is quite a memorable month for Sunderland fans. It was in December 1999 that we announced our arrival in the Premier League by walloping Chelsea 4-1, of which more later.

Same month, 9 years on and Roy Keane left the club after a breakdown in his relationship with Ellis Short. In came Ricky Sbragia who just guided us through the minefields of a relegation battle.

A year ago, Martin O’Neill took over from the hapless Steve Bruce, so it is appropriate as we consider his annus horribilius, that we clutch at Chelsea straws going into a crucial month.

The game in 1999 has oft been described as the best Sunderland performance at the SoL. Quinn and Phillips were rampant, but the outstanding player that day was a quiet, underused Frenchman called Eric Roy. He set up Niall for the first one and totally destroyed the Chelsea midfield with his subtle flicks, thoughtful runs and astute passes.

It would be nice to think that Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson and maybe David Vaughan, could bring some of Roy’s attributes to our table on Saturday afternoon, but I am not holding my breath. It looks like being the kind of game where we hang on and hope for a passing Korean to give us a late win.

This time last year, the ether was buzzing as Sunderland fans young and old, male and female, exiled or local greeted the arrival of Martin O’Neill.

Under the previous manager we looked doomed. Players were playing with their heads down and the crowd was as mutinous as a bunch of pirates denied their daily grog. The owner realised this and sacked the incumbent, immediately replacing him with the unemployed, but most certainly not unemployable, O’Neill.

I can’t think of any dissenting voices at the time. If there were, they were even less audible as we embarked on a splendid sequence of results, which put us in the top three of form teams for a reasonably lengthy period.

With thanks to Jake for adapting Kartun Malaysia's caricature*

The first transfer window yielded a couple of loanees, one an underachieving England international deemed surplus to requirements by Roberto Mancini (now, where have I come across that recently?) The other an experienced central defender who had played in Greece, England, Germany and Scotland.

It seemed to many that there was no need to spend big as it was well known that MON had tremendous motivational skills. Those of us watching the rise of James McClean, the resurrection of Matt Kilgallon and the effectiveness of Jack Colback had no cause to argue.

The season collapsed after the home defeat to Everton in the cup. The high energy game we had thrived on turned into a far more lacklustre style, which brought defeats and draws, but which left us wanting the transfer window to open up so he could stamp his own personality on the group of senior players he had to work with.

Pre season was poor, but the arrival of Fletcher and Johnson was heralded by most as a step in the right direction. Two wingers, one skilful and subtle, the other a rambunctious raider, would it was hoped, play a major part in setting up the goals for Fletcher and Sessegnon. Bring on Arsenal, Reading and Swansea.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. We have struggled to find the net, with Fletcher being our only League scorer until a helpful Mag gave us a point in October.
Our central midfield has shown as much imagination as a Simon Cowell TV show and to call the two wingers effective would be a violation of the English language not to mention the Trades Descriptions Act.

In short, we look poor and many regular attendees can see little real signs of improvement. Sure, the second half on Sunday was better than the first, but that is like saying that warm gruel is better than cold gruel; at the end of the day, it’s still bloody gruel.

So where have we gone wrong?

We made a good appointment. We wanted an experienced manager who had a proven track record. We wanted someone who would bring the fans back onside after the divisive last few months under Bruce.

Jake's promises unlimted green kryptonite ...

His tactics when he arrived, rejuvenated the players and made them feel wanted. It was a style that said “let the opposition have the ball and stop them from doing anything with it. When they give it away, catch them on the break and make sure that there are players in the box to pick up anything loose.”

Opposition managers were taken aback by this and the less talented ones were unable to counter it. It wasn’t always pretty to watch, but it was effective and we became media darlings for a short while.

Has MON been rumbled? Do opponents know what to do or do we play into their hands with our oh so slow build up from the back and through midfield? It has to be the manager’s plan to do this. Players are told what to do and they do it. There are no mavericks like Balotelli or David Luiz here.

And it has not worked. We look a very pedestrian side with little spark. There was some at Everton, a little at Fulham and a bit more in the second half at Norwich . But it is like driving on a busy motorway. The progress is slow and then suddenly the road opens up, the accelerator is used – only to run into another queue a couple of minutes later.

Is it because he is 61, an age where many of us are leaving work behind and taking up caravanning or carpentry or creosoting fences a la Big Al?

Is it because he is missing John Robertson, team mate at Forest and work colleague at Grantham, Wycombe etc?

Is it because, as Villa fans are constantly reminding us, that he only really knows one way to play and if that does not come off, he has no real alternative plan?

Is it because he has been left with a set of players who are all too much of a muchness? Gardner, Cattermole, Larsson, Vaughan, Colback are all so similar to one another.

Have the players let him down? McClean seems to look for controversy rather than the by-line. Johnson is nothing like the player we expected him to be. The defence, after a promising start, is beginning to leak goals. Even Mignolet is making errors.

So whither Martin O’Neill?

Does the owner cut him loose and start again or does he stick with him and make some funds available in January in the hope that he can once again revitalise what is a very ordinary team?

I don’t know. I do know that I have sat through a lot of dull football this season, which makes me think about the wisdom of renewing my ticket in the future. If O’Neill fails spectacularly, I fear that it will be the end of the club as we know it and we will be forever labelled a sleeping giant or whatever stale cliché the national media want to use.

The current talk is about whether Wenger has had his day at an increasingly fractious Ashburton Grove, whether Benitez can win over England ’s most arrogant fans at Stamford Bridge and if there is a chance that a team which can barely fill its capacity of 18,000 will be saved by Redknapp. I get the impression that the O’Neill story is a non-story because he is viewed as a dead man walking.

So, no answers here, I’m afraid. I want the club I have followed through a little bit of thick and an awful lot of thin for 50 years to be a success, to maybe win something and to play entertaining, enjoyable football. Twelve months ago, I thought I was about to see my hopes fulfilled. Now, I am not so sure. Let’s hope we can turn the clock back 13 years on Saturday. Who will be our Eric Roy?

*** See the full O’Neill One Year On series at this link: https://safc.blog/category/martin-oneill-one-year-on/

And Monsieur Salut has become very gloomy: read his latest contribution on the ESPN blog http://soccernet.espn.go.com/blog/_/name/sunderland/id/710?cc=5739

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28 thoughts on “O’Neill One Year On: (5) remember, remember the 4th of December (walloping Chelsea)”

  1. I may have misread william’s thread apropos Allardyce being an alternative to Bruce. Bruce’s top 10 finishes still stand as decent results. Therefore I assume you suggest Sam would have either had means of sustaining/improving on 10th place or alternatively he would have had more patient support from the crowd during a lower results phase. The latter may well be the case. Regarding Short I genuinely believe he’s in it for the long run. He attended the opening of the £3 million indoor centre which he has either funded or approved despite the club being in debt.

  2. Sorry, but Keane took us from third off bottom in the Championship to promotion. His nature probably meant that a long tenure was always unlikely. He walked rather than Short pushing him out. Bruce had two top 10 finishes before his fall from grace. Undoubtedly he lost the crowd and paid the price. To suggest that Short was not involved in the recruitment process is difficult to square with recent comments from the man himself. The argument against Quinn is specious. Rewriting history this way is ill-advised. Speculating that another manager eg Allardyce would have us in a top 6 spot simply lacks credibility. What is this based on? Signings? In which case who? He’s a decent manager but when comparing his record with MON he’s no better. Chopping and changing managers is not the way forward. Empower the manager, back his judgement which in terms of signings as been decent so far, make the players take responsibility

  3. Far as I know, Ellis did not pick MON,he was Niall’s choice.Ellis, being the ruthless operator he is, will not think twice before pulling the plug,like he did with Niall in fact.

    MON must be walking a tightrope right now,two bad results and he could well be gone, regardless of what we supporters want…….think we had all had better be prepared for that.

    • Much as we all love him, Niall has a bit to answer for as far as recommending managers. Keane, Bruce and now MO’N. Had Allardyce been appointed instead of Bruce, I am willing to bet we would be top six by now.

  4. Last season Everton had a poor start with only 18 pts after 14 games. Their key players returned from injury or alternatively found form as they went on a good run and finished well up the able. Stoke have gone through a similar good run in the last 5 games and climbed the table. Our players are as good as Stoke’s. The season is along way from over. That said ….time to get stuck in, up the tempo, get the crowd’s blood pumping. I don’t know why we’ve had such a mediocre first third of a season. Not all that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts…..I think it was Harry Rednapp who said that

  5. Moyes thing is relevant. I think Everton were nearly relegated in his first full season. They were similar to us previously; spend money and go round in circles.

  6. No Gareth, read it properly. There are several points being made. It is far from just being a mental issue. Many of the current squad are incapable of playing to a high standard on a regular basis, thus the initial boom and subsequent long bust of the O’Neill regime so far. Much of last season with MON at the helm was not great either, have a look at the stats. SAFC have flattered to deceive ever since 27-3-2012 when they lost by virtue of a shambolic display against Everton in the FA Cup replay at the SoL, and the latter part of last season was an absolute damp squib, highly paid professionals simply going through the motions whilst thousands of fans were forking out [and still are] a lot of cash home and away and seeing little in return. A big change is hopefully going to come immediately…or we’re knackered as they say in these NE parts.

    • Fair enough.

      I do believe the players have the ability to produce the goods.

      If you look at the stats he’s taken 47 points from 39 games I believe.

      That isn’t so bad compared to previous managers.

      I would say that even whether we play one or two up front, if we don’t move the ball quicker then the amount of forwards on the pitch becomes irrelevant.

      • That includes points that were being collected when the squad were playing above themselves, however. They have now plateaud and it’s worrying.

        I’m with you though, we have to ride it out. I think he always planned to get a central midfielder and central defender in the long term, but thought (as we all did) that what we had would be enough for now.

        Bill, I see your ‘Ha’way the lads’, and I raise you ‘Hawayawayawayawayawayaaaaaaaaaa’.

  7. Tactics dear boy, tactics. Professionals don’t like we supporters having an opinion on them but damn them, here goes. MON can help himself thus:
    1] Do not set us up like an away team at home.
    2] Do not leave Fletcher isolated. Give him a quality, aggressive striking partner who, within reason, will play within yards of him at any given time. Preferably someone who will unsettle defences with his physical presence. For now, step forward Connor Wickham-can you grab your chance? * I know its fashionable for one out and out striker just now but the opposition would have to adapt their system accordingly if we played two up front.
    3] Make sure we play with real momentum-get at teams from the kick off and make sure they know they’re in a game from the off, not always when we’re behind. We rarely resurrect losing situations.
    4] Get central midfield sorted out-this is our real Achilles heel and a reason why the wingers struggle too. Catts is injury prone and ‘disciplinary prone’ and the other options have flattered to deceive-no vision, few goals, lack of physicality and the reluctance to utilise Meyler, who will always give you everything and who excelled at Stoke away last season [never to play in the Premiership since] is strange rationale.
    5] Sessegnon. Find him an effective role or drop him. Mesmerising skills with little end product in terms of goals or assists suggests that all that glitters is not gold and a bit of a luxury in the current situation. Can his skills pay?
    MON we want you to succeed and realise you need to bring more of your own players in, but for now help yourself by changing a system that clearly is not working at this moment in time. Good luck.

    • Does that just mean – go 4-4-2?

      The tactics were working last season when he players were implementing them. Now they are simply not doing their jobs on the pitch.

      It’s more of a mental issue than an ability issue.

    • Tom, I agree with every word. I was delighted when O’Neill was appointed. I had wanted him as manager for years.
      He did inherit a poor squad, and I think his recruiting has been okay, particuarly Fletcher and Rose.
      He had a brilliant start. Way above what most of us would have believed. That often happens immediately following a new managerial appointment.
      However, only the blind can ignore the reality of what has followed the initial impact. The results have been appalling, but, worse, the football has been abysmal.
      There are a thousand definitions of good management, but, in reality, I believe that it means making the best possible use of the resources available. In this respect, he, [ O’Neill ] has IMO fallen well short of what should be expected of a top manager.
      His team selection and tactical approach, have in my humble opinion been suicidal. Other than a freak result [ Man City at SOL last year ] you simply cannot win games playing the way we do. You are, in fact, unlikely to draw many either. I can only presume the team play to the manager’s instructions, and if so, I have to seriously question his rationale.
      I agree with all of the points you have made, and at times, during the closing minutes of matches, when we played like that, we have looked a half-decent side. I simply don’t understand how MO’N with all his experience, can’t see it?

  8. I do love this blog. Always a quality read. That said it’s suffering a bit of SAD…the winter nights are affecting morale. Some of you won’t like this but I’d offer MON an extended contract a la Pardew. The players should then be sorted out ie turn up or move out. Our model for management is Moyes…the best value for money for the last ten years…who has had unflinching support from his board even in dark times. MON’s acquisitions have been decent ie Rose, Fletcher are good, Cuellar is settling in and Johnson is starting to flourish with quality assists. It’s the others that are in need of a boost. Sess is looking more like his old self. Colback could be a decent LB with Rose moving to left midfield. It’s not blind faith nor is it wrong to question MON. It’s healthy to do so however we need a long term strategic approach and a change of mindset amongst those who always seem to howl for the manager’s head.

    • Spot on Neil . I agree with everything you say in this post. Part of the long term plan should also be to develop more home grown players. Must be about time Laing ,Noble,Deacon etc are ready for a place on the bench.

    • Maybe I haven’t read these with the objectivity of others but it seems to me that overall the feeling of the 5 contributors to this topic is that we are behind MON. But support does not mean that it is wrong to look at failings (and results have been much more disappointing than we would like) and suggest ways forward.

      For me it is a lack of initiative in the early stages of the game that we need to address, others see it as players not producing. I don’t see anyone calling for the manager’s head at this stage. I agree that our model should be a club like Everton and someone like Moyes who also seemed to start seasons with a string of poor results.

      But I think it fair to suggest that if we see no improvement and the club appears to be at a standstill we question why.

      • I agree Malcom.

        However your last paragraph raises a really important question/discussion – when can a the club be deemed to at a stage of ‘no improvement’ or ‘at a standstill’?

        I think we can all rationally and safely say it isn’t after a year.

        I think we have the right man for the job, and we need to give him proper time to get it right.

        Even if we finish say 16th this season, it doesn’t mean we won’t finish top half next season.

        We have to go long term at this stage for me.

        We have consolidated in the Premier League now, and despite the start to the season I firmly believe we’ll be competing in the Premier League next season.

      • I agree with all you say too Gareth – the frustration is a result of our expecting the team to kick on this season, with an improved squad, after a disappointing end to last. Let’s hope this time next week we have another six points and have climbed the table to relative security. A win against Chelsea will make the Reading game so much easier and keep the crowd positive. A defeat will increase the pressure on the players and (I’m afraid) lead to more vocal disapproval from sections of the home crowd.

  9. The problem with the Foch quote, Bill, is that although the French success at the Marne prevented a German victory, it lead to 4 years of attrition because Foch was as bereft of ideas as the rest of the Allied High Command.
    I find it difficult to contemplate failure from Martin O’Neill. If we are relegated and should he leave, I think that will be the end for me.
    Chelsea will be an interesting one on Saturday; crushing win tonight, but out of the Champions League. Good time to play them? Let’s hope so.

  10. That seems to be the pattern at Sunderland. Full of promise and vigour, then tails off to confidence-less displays.
    Happened with Kean, Bruce and now O Neill. Maybe a lot of managers have a honeymoon period and peters out.
    I still think MON can bring confidence back up again. I still look back at that cancelled game v reading and think “what if…” 3 extra points, more confidence?

    I refer to my previous posts: if not MON then who ? Who is better ? None of the responses I’ve seen to that question so far are making my spine tingle.
    Even if we got Pep Guardiola, he’d still have a headache with our midfield.

    If I was MON I’d play 4-5-1 from now on, solely based on the fact that our midfield is being bossed easily. But, I’d tell the players to make sure they make forward runs and get in the box. And get back and cover of course. (I’d give them an extra day off per week!

  11. I’m not saying we are, I’m saying we could get that reputation. But it’s academic. O’Neill will see out the season with the club still in the Premiership.

  12. I’m just saying that no good can come of getting a reputation for having a revolving door for managers. Anyway, be that as it may, this one’s not done yet!

  13. “Who would take the job, knowing that as soon as he came through the door, the clock would be ticking and he’d have a year to turn things around or be on his way? ”

    Bill, you say that as if there was something atypical about SAFC. There isn’t. We are hardly in the business of sacking managers who have been doing a decent job now are we. The only manager whose services have been dispensed with too early was Allan Durban and I was little more than a boy. The majority of managers who we have eventually fired could probably have been gotten rid of months ahead of their last day, and in most cases the team would have gained the benefit.

    The clock starts ticking on any manager who isn’t winning games Bill and there is nothing remotely unique about Sunderland. Please don’t mention Alan bloody Curbishley. He’d be lucky to get a manager’s job at Burger King these days.

  14. The question you’ve implicitly asked here Pete (at least I think it is), is whether James McClean somehow personifies the O’Neill experience, as it were. He arrived full of vim and vigor and then suddenly his spark was gone and he became nullified once intelligent defenders could see the one dimensional way that he goes about the game.

    The way that we played last season by letting teams come on to us and counter attacking has given way to allowing teams to come on to us; full stop. There simply is no thrust through the middle of the park and the wingers who were causing problems and getting their fair share of goals have not done so. Larsson of course has been moved to a position which just doesn’t work for him and has also been ostensibly removed from dead ball situations by Gardner.

    I’m the same as you Pete, but us old stagers have seen more than one poor Sunderland team and a lot more relegation battles which have been lost rather than won. Over the decades we’ve followed this club we may not have seen that many great sides or performances but we have the experience to recognise rubbish at a thousand yards. What we are seeing this season is pure unadulterated rubbish at that. I would love MON to turn things round and to survive in his job and for us not to be relegated he has to do that quickly and effectively. There is precious little evidence of that being possible, only blind faith and my blindness was lost many years ago.

  15. So, basically, what we’re looking at is a big, “We don’t know…”
    We don’t know whether O’Neill should stay or go. We don’t know whether it’s him who’s to blame or the players. We don’t know if it’s Ellis Short refusing to spend money. We don’t know if MON is feeling his age, pining for his old sidekick or both.
    So what DO we know?
    We know it’s early December and the season has 5 more months to run. We’re sitting 4th from the bottom of the Premiership, a point ahead of Southampton, 4 ahead of Reading and 7 ahead of QPR. But only a point behind Wigan and Aston Villa and 4 adrift of the Mags and Fulham.
    We know (or we SHOULD know) that if O’Neill leaves the SoL any time soon, whether he’s pushed or jumps, we’re unlikely to attract a manager of any great calibre to replace him. Who would take the job, knowing that as soon as he came through the door, the clock would be ticking and he’d have a year to turn things around or be on his way? Even the likes of Alan Curbishley wouldn’t come on those unspoken terms.
    Maybe O’Neill’s big mistake was starting so well when he arrived. If he hadn’t immediately started getting good results, perhaps we wouldn’t be in such a panic now.
    I refuse to believe that we could be looking at “the end of the club” as we know it. We’ve fought back too many times from relegation for that to be true. And we haven’t been relegated again just yet. Not by a long chalk.
    We need to have a little more faith in the man we were hailing this time last year as the new messiah. It’s not time to crucify him just yet. And really, all the team has to do is win a couple of games and he’ll be back up on his pedestal. I think O’Neill deserves better than that kind of black-or-white reaction.
    I’ve always been fond of a quote attributed to Marshall Ferdinand Foch during World War I at the Battle of the Marne: “My right is hard pressed. My centre is yielding. Impossible to maneouvre. Situation excellent. I attack.”
    In other words: Ha’way the lads!

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