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 …
IT WAS THIRTEEN YEARS AGO TODAY………………
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.
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.
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