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?