In the second of Salut! Sunderland‘s look back at Martin O’Neill’s first year in charge – visit the home page salutsunderland.com to see the first – Jeremy Robson wonders whether our manager will still be at the helm 12 months from now. He has his doubts…
One year older, one year wiser and deeper in debt. Not sure if that is a quote from a song. Maybe it will be one day. Who knows and who cares anyway?
Martin O’Neill celebrates (and if that term is being used more loosely elsewhere than here, then it is, very probably being misused).
His arrival was seen as the probably the best managerial appointment of our lifetimes. I’m not talking about the younger “Sky Generation” either. His pedigree was unquestioned and his managerial achievements given his previous clubs probably as good as anyone in the modern game.
OK he hadn’t won the English title or conquered Europe, but his record at Leicester and Celtic particularly were very impressive. He seemed destined in the early months to continue that run and his first match in charge culminated in a swashbuckling fightback against Blackburn Rovers where victory was grasped from the jaws of defeat. The introduction of James McClean into the first team epitomised the sudden upswing in confidence and tenacity that O’Neill brought with him.
The points started to stack on the board over the course of the next couple of months with some tremendous moments including the last ditch winner from Ji against the eventual champions, Manchester City.
As usual with Sunderland the wheels came off and we went on a winless streak, about which readers will need no reminder. That run has carried on almost unpunctuated since March with little sign of abatement, perhaps with the exception of the second half at Carrow Road at the weekend. Too little, too late and the game was lost before half time. Our paltry goals and shots on target make grim reading (unless you happen to be a Mag).
O’Neill’s transfer dealings demand some scrutiny, having failed to bolster a midfield cruelly lacking any creativity in two transfer windows and after a year in charge. He has perhaps been guilty of putting all of his eggs in one – well, two – baskets, namely Fletcher and Johnson.
Fletcher looks to be the most clinical finisher most of us have ever witnessed in red and white and his conversion rate of chances to goals is all the more astonishing given the appalling service he has received. O’Neill has a reputation for playing with wingers and a target man. Our target man, Norman Stanley, scored more goals with his head last season than anyone else in the PL. This year he has barely got mud on his brow from a decent crossed ball and has yet to celebrate a headed goal.
Regardless, O’Neill has persisted with wingers who are out of form (Johnson) or have been found out (maybe both cases apply to McClean), who have failed persistently to deliver decent service to our multimillion pound striker.
Changes to tactics have necessitated the frequent introduction of Fraizer Campbell, who has looked as threatening as a wet lettuce whenever he has entered the fray.
It’s possibly the emphasis on playing with wingers that has distracted the manager from the genuine lack of creativity in the middle of the field where, invariably, Colback and been paired with Cattermole. Every team needs a Cattermole but it shouldn’t require two Cattermoles or two Colbacks either.
Stiffening the midfield has come at a considerable price in terms of taking the game to the opposition, although there is a credible argument that it has helped the back four to appear as more coherent unit despite the ageing legs of Cuellar and O’Shea at the core of it.
Under Bruce, the pairing of Turner and Bramble provided us with an excellent partnership which was unfortunately broken up by injury to either one or both. The sale of Turner to last weekend’s opponents ended any possibility of this duo being restored to the first team together. The most successful acquisition of his tenure so far is actually on loan – Danny Rose – and seems to grow in stature and confidence every week despite what have been abject performances of those around him. I wasn’t convinced about him to begin with but I am now a huge admirer of the Donny lad.
My précis of MON’s first year in charge would have to conclude that, for the moment at least, it seems highly unlikely that there will be a second anniversary.
The current long run of awful results and performances puts O’Neill in the same bracket as Sbragia and Bruce and not the late great Brian Clough, a man admired immensely by both O’Neill and the majority of Sunderland supporters.
The absence of John Robertson from his bench has been compared to the situation Clough faced without his sidekick Peter Taylor back in the 1970s. Whether that’s a fair comparison I hesitate to say, but O’Neill does not look like a man who is comfortable with his surroundings and the tasks placed on him.
There are times in a manager’s career when he discovers something about his players and finds that he has a better team when he loses one or other through injury. It happens to the best of them. Bobby Robson’s experience in the 1986 World Cup was that losing “key players” could sometimes help him put out a better team.
Let’s hope that the anticipated lengthy injury lay off to Lee Cattermole and Stephen Fletcher’s forced withdrawal at the weekend will result in changes of fortune. This will hopefully result in a broadening of the imagination of possibilities, even if it has been forced upon him.
Something needs to change and fast, otherwise there is precious little chance that any Salut! Sunderland contributor will be penning a second anniversary piece this time next year.
*** 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