The Robson Report: PDC makes it so simple; why couldn’t O’Neill?

Jeremy Robson
Jeremy Robson

Some of the most thought-provoking analysis of things that matter to Sunderland AFC supporters comes from the great Mackem diaspora. This comment on the Blackcats e-mail list – “the older I get the more I become convinced that it really is a simpler game than the coaches, tacticians and (especially) pundits would have us believe” – emanated from the region (Mick Goulding in Co Durham) but set Jeremy Robson, over in Canada, thinking about some of the basic failings of the Martin O’Neill regime and the equally basic remedies Paolo Di Canio is applying. In an interesting riposte, Moscow-based Andy Potts sees similarities in the early achievements of both men …

Of course it is simpler than is so often suggested. They try to make out that there is something sophisticated about it all. It’s the simplest game in the world, when its played properly and the players are doing the basics right. The question is not why Di Canio is doing it right but what on earth O’Neill was doing at any time during his reign?

There was no team spirit apparently. Why not? How does it get to the point where a mystery player just wanders off on his own, clearly unhappy and not talking to any of his team mates at the end of training every day?

How come players weren’t even moving off the ball?

Why were they so unfit?

How come he made signings like Saha and McFadden?

Why did he persist with players who had been rank for months on end?

All you had to do was take one look at O’Neill at any time this season, and you could see a man who had lost the will to run a team.

He had completely lost interest. His body language was terrrible. Nobody would be motivated to play for someone like that and in that state of mind. He was just going through the motions completely and for me, the fact that he signed the likes of Saha, McFadden, Bridge and Kyrgiakos illustrated that this was a man who had been out of the game for too long.

When you hear what the Villa fans were saying about him when he came to us, you probably could have said the same thing about him several years ago. The toll of his wife’s long illness was written in his face and he has my sympathy for having to go through that. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to have taken the job in the first place, and clearly he had lost the will to do it properly.

I wonder if this was maybe the reason why John Robertson didn’t want to come back to the dugout with him. Who knows?

I can’t really say that O’Neill was indifferent to the mess that he had made, but he does seem to have been completely oblivious to it. His comments about the size of the squad being too small back in October saw him reduce it even further in the January window and when he was sacked we were down to the bare bones, having recently failed to even muster the full complement of substitutes one a number of occasions. That’s a completely
crazy situation to be in for a Premier League club with 40 thousand people turning up every home game.

O’Neill had always relied upon sheer size and strength during his time at Leicester. During his time at Filbert Street he buit a team around lads like Steve Walsh, Emile Heskey, Gerry Taggart and Matty Elliott. I recall
someone commenting that he “will always make your team taller” when he came to Sunderland. He had even lost the capacity to sign big lads. He did the same thing at Celtic but it didn’t seem that way at Villa or on Wearside.

There were a number of players that O’Neill just didn’t want to pick, irrespective of how badly his favorites were doing. Ji couldn’t get a look it despite having found the net on a few occasions during his first months with Sunderland.

Connor Wickham was only used sparingly, and on the few occasions when there was nobody else. Much like his predecessor he allowed players to leave who should still be there and failed to adequately replace them. Few Sunderland supporters would argue that the likes of Kieran Richardson and Michael Turner would have served us well over the last few months.

His argument was that the likes of N’Diaye, Graham and Mangane would be unlikely to show their real value until next season. There was no next season for O’Neill and whilst it’s all well and good to be looking to the future, we were in dire straits in the New Year and the promise of jam tomorrow sounds empty when there isn’t even any bread on the table today.

There will be stories to tell in future years about O’Neill’s reign and some of them will be told by the players he alienated during his tenure.

So great was the expectation he raised on his arrival that a significant element of our fan base supported him for far longer than any of his actions deserved. So bedazzled by his past achievements there was a feeling for some time that it couldn’t possibly be his fault that we were in ruin.

Nothing changed under O’Neill for a good six months, or even more. We were heading straight down to the Championship, and yet some of our fans seemed to think that relegation was somehow acceptable. and that we would have to go down in order to rebuild. It was a ridiculous assertion but one which was more widely held than it should have been, and for a lot longer than made sense. There are a lot of surprises in football but none greater than the fact that the widespread dismay and passive acceptance of O’Neill’s failure can be wiped away in ninety minutes on Tyneside.

To which Andy Potts replied:

Fair points about the latter half of O’Neill’s spell, but what about the first couple of months? Came in to a moribund dressing room, gave the impression of galvanising a set of players who were in freefall, and suddenly we were playing with verve, enthusiasm, organisation, belief … and smacking in goal-of-the-month contenders from midfield almost every other game. A bit like we did on Sunday, in fact.

So far, PDC has replicated that – and we’re all delighted. But keeping us up is only the start. Keane, Bruce and O’Neill have all failed to get anywhere near the fabled “next level”.

All of them have proved capable of generating brief spurts of optimism, but nothing sustainable. Which brings us back to the question of what goes on elsewhere in the club.

We know the players can be induced to overperform, but we seem incapable of either upgrading the playing staff (or holding onto the genuine quality which does come our way) or even developing the lads we have to the point where “overperformance” becomes more of a standard performance level.

That shouldn’t be impossible – good coaching, logically, should make players better at playing together (even if we assume it’s impossible to coach in skills that are not naturally present in a pro in his late 20s).

And yet it consistently fails to happen. Transfer policy is the same – we rarely seem to unearth a real gem, and I can’t think of a single player, whether signed from elsewhere or nurtured at home, who has left Sunderland in recent years and gone on to achieve things that clearly would have been out of his reach with (Henderson may prove otherwise in time, but before that you’d probably be looking at Ally McCoist or Barry Venison).

It’s starting to suggest that somewhere in the system there’s a deeper problem than playing staff or management. We heard how it was Roker Park that was holding us back. Then we moved, and it was Bob Murray who was holding us back. Then he went, and the elusive piece of the jigsaw still can’t be found. Any ideas out there?

16 thoughts on “The Robson Report: PDC makes it so simple; why couldn’t O’Neill?”

  1. Great to see you come out of hibernation, as always Geoff Since you last appeared there have been many occasions when I wished that I was hibernating myself. You have come back to the daylight at a very good time.

  2. Your last paragraph Jeremy. I’m sure you have the diagnosis correct. There is an endemic problem that pervades the club. You just need to go that final step and recognise it. There’s one and, I think, only one thing about the club that never changes come what may. I’ve talked about it from time to time on Blackcats and always been vilified for it.

  3. I watched Danny Graham earlier in the season playing for Swansea and he looked an average Championship player,he was slow and when he did get the ball he was easy knocked of the ball.The same can be said when he got a chance to score,he was closed down far too quickly for a top class forward.He lost his place at Swansea and should never have been bought,I cant see him getting a game when SF comes back,they both lack true pace,but SF knows were the back of the net is.

  4. Plan B. I don’t think I’ve ever read a post on Salut which I’ve been more in agreement with.

    I too have lost respect for him for the same reasons you cite. All that guff about being “the only man for the Sunderland job” etc rings a little hollow. Some of his comments since he went were starting to sound a bit like Doubtfire, and like you, I’m surprised that he is talking about wanting another job in football.

    Now that we have a passionate figure in the dugout who seems energized by the challenge he faces, makes O’Neill seem even more dispirited in hindsight. An element within our fan base seemed prepared to accept the unacceptable, with simple things like players not moving off the ball and not shooting when they should etc. The failings in the team’s performances were obvious to see and yet nothing changed. Neither his personnel or his tactics, nor his actions in the transfer market. Since Gyan and Bent left we have consistently required 2 additional forwards. In the window he brought in Graham and let both Saha and McFadden (who could play up front) both leave as well as Ji.

    To me this suggested one of two things. Firstly, that he expectations of Graham were completely out of line with the evidence of his record, or secondly he really didn’t rate Ji or indeed Wickham. The problem is that unless he was going to sign a striker who would be guaranteeing goals (and DG most certainly does not fit that bill), then he had completely lost the plot in allowing anyone to leave, given the fact that even DG’s biggest fans would not expect a Van Persie type return from him. O’Neill got himself to the point where he seemed to think that nothing at all was better than what he had. An appalling admission through his actions and failure to land decent players in 3 windows. Failing to fill a bench with the permitted number of substitutes is a huge indictment of his lack of focus here.

    As far as PDC goes, I think he will keep us up, and that will do for now. We were nailed on to go down under MON. After the end of the season we will know what the future holds to some extent. I love the passion and he combines that with some real sense when he is talking about where we are and what we need to do. It’s great so far. Let’s wait and see where it all leads now 🙂

    • Cheers Jeremy. O’Neills transfer dealings were as odd as his tactics! Will be intriguing to see what Di Canio does in the summer with his own transfers (I’m certain we’ll stay up).

      re. Danny Graham I dont think he’s ever looked like a genuine Premier League player since coming here however he did his job well on Sunday, probably because we played to his strengths. Not sure that vindicates the signing, just surely begs more questions of O’Neill as to why we didn’t get the ball into his feet before?

  5. There was a quite fascinating and engaging interview with Martin O’Neill with the Beeb’s Pat Murphy shortly after he left. Quite rare for such a well known manager to do an interview of this type, if you missed it, here is a snippet, can’t find the full one:

    I could damn him by faint praise by saying he came across as more magnanimous than Doubtfire, but the main feeling for me was that I’d lost most of my respect for him. If he really had lost his fire then he should have walked earlier, rather than take us to the brink of relegation and although he says he accepts he was responsible for performances, he also defends his methods as though there was nothing wrong with them at all. All evidence headed in the opposite direction.

    Football, however, is indeed a simple game and we fans have bemoaned those very methods all season. Di Canio has came in and very quickly identified our problems and already made a big difference. O’Neill should be embarrassed, so much so that it’s a surprise to hear him say he still wants to be in football. Di Canio will be good for us, how far he can take us we don’t know but he can change the way our team is run in the future, the way they train, the way they prepare, and how much they play for the shirt. Thats all we’ve wanted isn’t it?

  6. I can’t possibly understand why anyone would think that Di Matteo couldn’t have done better than O’Neill given his astonishing achievements as a manager in his last three jobs but agree on both McLaren and Hughes.

    The mention of Gyan and Bent is timely Ian because this was out strike force (+Welbeck) two years ago. At the weekend it was Danny Graham. The money from the sales of those players was invested heavily in Fletcher who was a great buy. The rest of it was squandered. Ji was farmed out when we could have kept him and played him and he looks likely to stay in Germany now I’d have thought. Bruce is a good bloke to get a club promoted but he struggles with the challenges of the top flight. Hull will go straight back down. Shame for Hull CIty but not for Cribbins.

    • Jeremy – Di Matteo was sacked by West Brom.
      Now, with a stellar squad like Chelsea just about anyone could step in and do a decent job, but with our squad I think he would have struggled and we may well have gone down.

  7. I was resigned to relegation with MON because I simply could not see anyone else out there who could do the job better than him. ie; from the options such as Hughes, McClaren, Di Matteo etc.

    I must admit I didn’t want PDC because of his unproven record in the PL. But, I am happy to be wrong (hopefully) when he keeps us up. I like his “attack is the best form of defence” attitude and he’s already got players making runs into the box. Something that MON didn’t instill. MON was too defensive minded, and personally lacked a wee bit passion I think.

    Mind you, Bruce might have lasted a whole lot longer if Bent and Gyan hadn’t stabbed him in the back. Eventually he would have gone because I think he lacked a Plan B, but I think he’s a decent manager and he’s doing a cracking job at Hull and did a good job at Wigan too. We’ll see what he does in the PL next season with Hull. Anyway, I’m not so down on Bruce as everyone else seems to be.

    • Ian. just recall his bleating in the press after his removal, it went on for months. He could have gone with dignity but chose not to.

      Its a fair point about Bent and Gyan, but really he had taken us as far as he could and Jeremy is right, he lacks the ability to survive in the Premiership.

      I hope he does because I would like to see Hull stay up, but the manner of his departure form the SOL left a bad taste I’m afraid.

      • Bruce might be a little bit old-school for the current PL. The new guys like AVB and PDC with their cuting edge approach are the future, but Bruce has taken an average in Hull to the brink of automatic promotion.
        Now in the PL its different, but my point is that he did OK at Wigan and had them mid-table-ish with an averge squad there. He bought some decent players.
        I would agree that he perhaps could not have lifted Sunderland above mid-table though no matter who he brought in.

    • ‘I like his “attack is the best form of defence” attitude and he’s already got players making runs into the box. Something that MON didn’t instill. MON was too defensive minded, and personally lacked a wee bit passion I think.’

      Something that I found interesting was contained in the letter from SAF (to PDC) after he won League 2 at Swindon.

      It read:

      “I like your philosophy — keep going. This sort of play is the future of football”.

  8. Thanks for the comments lads. Some very good points raised.

    Going back to Phil’s comments to start. We were all captured by the O’Neill appointment and the expectation was great that we felt he could do no wrong. For this reason, even some of the most bizarre managerial moves were accepted as if they were some greater master plan, although they may seem ludicrous now looking back. We were prepared to give him some license because of his record. Sadly it wasn’t to be and the biggest worry for me when he was sacked was simply whether the new manager would have time to turn it round. Our player issues are deep seated in terms of the size of the problem, but to some extent were exacerbated by O’Neill’s intransigence and inability to get players to do the sort of things that any reasonable coach could get 12 year old kids to do.

    Vince is dead right about the geography and to some extent O’Neill recognition of this was exemplified by signing Fletcher and Johnson. SF is no Flash Harry and Johnson was coming home. Unfortunately the latter just hasn’t come off (derby goal aside). It will be interesting to see what happens when PDC goes out and signs players though.

  9. “Any ideas out there?”

    Take down the SOL brick by brick and rebuild it 200 yards from King Cross station…or Heathrow airport.

    Geography is the missing link…..but we can do little about that.Newcastle suffer the same problems only they have a had a bit more financial clout in the past.

    Good players generally do not want to come here….Sess/Bent/Gyan are the exceptions… that may be changing as they are all recent arrivals,it takes time.

    We have Mignolet and potentially could have Rose as rising stars.In Fletcher we have a sharp centre forward and even Johnson arrived when we never thought he would.In years gone by we missed out on many a player we wanted…Johnson would have gone elsewere.I know he has been disappointing but in the past we would have just not secured him.How many times did we miss a payer by a mere hundred thousand pounds?… .trying to shave off every last penny.

    Those days have gone…so lets be cheerful…especially after this weekends result.

  10. Good atrticle, and like Phil I supported MON longer than was sensible.

    I think we started to accept that we may go down and an attitude of ‘we have made our bed and now must lie in it’ evolved. The one thought that kept comimg to me was the embarressment of again having to admit we had appointed another failure and we would be a laughing stock.

    With SB he could not go soon enough, I was never happy with the appointment but remained open to convincing. With MON I was delighted we had finally got our man so felt allegiance to him and a deal of respect that I never had for SB.

    ES acted decisively in a hard nose business manner for which we may all have to be thankful. It is still early days but if MON had still been here we would not have seen that performance on Sunday and the hope of maintaing our PL status and may be the hint of even more to come than just survival each season.

    The statements eminating form PDC are quite clear in their assessment of our current situation and the intent for the future, it is a breath of fresh air in the hallowed halls of the SOL/AOL and I can not see anything but good in it. As to wether our expectations can be met is a different matter, but there is a least a proactive and positive vibration eminating from the Club that has been sadly missing for too long.

  11. An excellent piece, Jeremy, which is saying (more or less) the same things you voiced around six months ago.

    At that stage, as you rightly point out, the vast majority of other supporters (myself included) were still defending him and believed that, eventually, everything in the garden would be rosey!

    Clearly, after only two games, PDC can not yet be hailed as our savior BUT there are some major positives that can be noticed not least of which possessing a team pattern that involves defending far higher up the pitch and provides a perfect springboard for attacks.

    So, i’m cautiously optimistic for the future – although I’ve said that far more times than I care to remember in the past 50 years!

    With regards to Andy’s response, I think your suspicions (particularly regarding transfers and coaching) are spot on.

    These both, though, seem to be being addressed as ES had, clearly, voiced his displeasure at the first and PDC is, reportedly, never away from the AOL – certainly not when the players are present, unlike a number of his predecessors!

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