In the midst of the furore at Sunderland surrounding the stiffness of Paolo Di Canio’s right arm and his predilection for saluting with it, the man he has replaced at the Stadium of Light has almost been forgotten. Martin O’Neill joined the swelling ranks of those who’ve lost their job in 2012/3, taking the grand total of managerial casualties to fifty in the Football League this season.
The circumstances of his departure seem fairly routine, his Sunderland side a victim of a late-season slump which has seen them draw perilously close to the relegation zone. Sunderland started the season with high expectations, a £25m summer spending spree had led to hopes of Europe, but they proved to be dashed as £10m Adam Johnson has floundered and £15m Steven Fletcher has struggled to recapture his early season form, starved of service from Johnson and James McClean, struggling with a serious case of second season syndrome.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. O’Neill arrived at the Stadium of Light to much fanfare in late 2011 and the initial signs were encouraging, with seven wins from his first ten games in charge. And although last season’s late season eight game winless slump drew some consternation, this season was thought to be the year O’Neill stamped his authority on the Black Cats. But the decline has continued, with only two wins before December and none since February.
Although the timing of his sacking, after a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, raised eyebrows, the decision did not. This is quite remarkable when you consider that O’Neill has, over the last decade and a half, been heavily linked with the England job and tipped to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson. The gradual decline of his career leading to his walk-out at Aston Villa has suddenly accelerated as he now finds himself linked with vacancies at Championship level clubs like Leeds.
Although O’Neill is now 61, age alone is an insufficient explanation for his demise. It is however true that O’Neill is defiantly and unashamedly of the old school, nurtured in the shadow of Brian Clough. His man-management skills are legendary, and he has built a reputation on inspiring fierce loyalty in his charges, and getting the best out of players who had been thought of as limited. O’Neill became a favourite of fans and the press after his high-octane touchline performances whilst at Leicester and Celtic, as he headed every ball and entered every challenge. But this has faded in Wearside. He has looked quiet and reserved in the dugout at the Stadium of Light, unable to lift his side, to provoke a modicum of spirit. As his players have lost confidence, so has he.
Traditionally consistent in selection, O’Neill has built his reputation on small squads, preferring to buy British. He has tended to set sides out rigidly, happy to cede possession and aiming to be most effective on the counter-attack. At Aston Villa, this was reasonably successful, with the searing pace of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor complementing the imposing striking presence of John Carew. Although he came in promising a stylistic revolution, his Sunderland side have actually set out much the same way, but without the personnel to implement this system effectively. Johnson is tricky and clever on the ball, but ultimately not nearly dynamic enough to pin back full-backs. Sunderland have struggled to keep the ball, and often look listless and bereft of ideas.
Although O’Neill talks with illuminating insight about the game, this sort of philosophy puts him into a category with the likes of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis, managerial company who he probably wouldn’t like to keep. His record in the transfer market is surprisingly poor, bordering on the dreadful in recent years. If you look at his buys at Aston Villa, from £8.5m for Nigel Reo-Coker, £8m for Curtis Davies and £7.8m for Carlos Cuellar, in contrast to those he let go, most notably Gary Cahill, it doesn’t make for good reading. He has spent big money at Villa and Sunderland for little return. His reputation as a mid-level manager for mid-level clubs looks increasingly well earned.
Taken as a whole, you worry that O’Neill simply hasn’t moved with the modern game. Younger managers of a similar stature; the likes of Brendon Rodgers or Nigel Adkins, are tacticians, almost geeky in their analysis of the strategic side of the game. Systems are tweaked and reshaped for certain games, and large squads are rotated and players rested. The role of club manager is increasingly replaced by a head coach, as scouting and recruitment are handled by other figures at the club. Layers of bureaucracy and corporate power mean that managers’ roles are becoming more clearly football based. None of this seems to fit with the style of Martin O’Neill.
After his side’s defeat to Manchester United last week, O’Neill told gathered football journalists that his glass was still ‘three quarters full’. That’s the kind of optimism O’Neill has built his reputation on and which delivered cup finals and silverware at Leicester and Celtic. He’ll need it if he wants to regain his once mighty reputation.