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?
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.