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How did O'Neill's 'dream job' turn into a nightmare?
IN the wake of his Sunderland side's 1-0 defeat to Manchester United at the weekend, Martin O'Neill was asked to comment on Adam Johnson's failure to live up to the expectations that accompanied him when he moved to Wearside.
“There was possibly a view held among Sunderland fans that this man could be the answer to everything,” he said. “But I am sorry, that is not going to be the case.” Six hours later, and the words were doubling up as a fitting epitaph to the Northern Irishman's reign.
O'Neill, more than any other Sunderland manager in the last two decades, was supposed to be the 'answer to everything'. He was a serial achiever - two-time European Cup winner as a player, two-time League Cup winner at Leicester City, three-time champion at Celtic. He had a reputation for lifting aspiring clubs to the brink of greatness, as witnessed by the three successive top-six finishes he achieved at Aston Villa.
And more importantly, given the baggage his predecessor, Steve Bruce, brought with him, he was a boyhood Sunderland supporter who regarded leading the club as the fulfilment of his dreams.
At his very first press conference, he reminisced about his boyhood worship of Charlie Hurley and the tears he shed when Brian Clough suffered his career-ending injury. Later in his reign, there would be talk of 1973 and his joy at Sunderland's FA Cup final success despite his own career having taken him to Nottingham Forest.
This was not affectation, it was a deep-rooted affiliation that enabled him to grasp the history and potential of the club with an ease that was difficult to discern in so many of his predecessors at not only the Stadium of Light, but also Roker Park.
This was a marriage that had been 60 years in the making, but which immediately appeared destined to succeed. Less than 16 months later though, and it has already fallen apart.
IT is easy to forget that things were not always this fraught. The early months of the O'Neill era were everything it had been hoped they would be.
Famed for his transformational man-management skills and ability to motivate players who had previously been languishing in the doldrums, O'Neill hit the ground running to haul Sunderland away from relegation trouble and into the middle of the table.
The debut win over Blackburn, secured by a last-minute Seb Larsson free-kick, remains one of the highlights of his reign, while there were also the thrills of an equally-dramatic win at QPR, a thumping three-goal win at Wigan, not to mention the unforgettable New Year's Day win over Manchester City.
In the previously untried Irishman, James McClean, O'Neill unearthed a young winger of genuine potential who was able to excite supporters with an unfettered approach that had been impossible to discern under Bruce.
Last February's FA Cup fifth-round win over Arsenal left Sunderland one game away from Wembley, fuelling expectations of an instant success that might have changed the course of the rest of O'Neill's reign. Then came March's quarter-final replay defeat to Everton, a night that felt like a reprisal of all of Sunderland's previous failings, overseen by a manager who was supposed to have put an end to such chronic underachievement.
It is somewhat simplistic to describe the Everton defeat as the beginning of the end, but in hindsight it undeniably represents the point at which an ultimately all-consuming rot set in.
Sunderland did not win another game all season, and their wretched form carried over into the current campaign, with O'Neill presiding over just one victory in his side's opening ten Premier League matches. The pressing question is, 'Why was he unable to halt the decline?'
THE answer can perhaps be found in the hangdog expression O'Neill had taken to adopting in the final two or three months of his stay at the Stadium of Light.
The caricature of his supposed persona is well versed – a twitching bundle of energy, leaping around on the side of the field, challenging his players to improve themselves and confronting his detractors head on.
The jumps were still there as Sunderland failed to break down Manchester United at the weekend, but they appeared to have been adopted for little more than effect. The eyes have betrayed weariness rather than passion for a while now, the words delivered in front of a microphone or tape recorder lacking the sparkle, wit and energy that had previously been hallmarks of his approach.
It wasn't that O'Neill was indifferent to Sunderland's fate, it was more that he had grudgingly accepted that his tried-and-tested methods were not having their anticipated effect. There was no fight in his team, no spikiness or fierce collective will to defy the odds. That must be incredibly difficult to accept when they have been induced so easily in the past.
Does that mean he is a spent force as a manager? Possibly. A loyal disciple of Clough, he has stuck religiously to an approach and style that has perhaps become outdated as football has changed.
Sunderland's players never turned against him, but there was a degree of puzzlement at his desire to remain aloof on the training ground, his tendency to keep the training programme at arm's length and his intransigence when it came to switching tactics or personnel.
Why were Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham never given a chance when Sunderland desperately needed goals? Why were Louis Saha and James McFadden brought in to sit on the bench before trotting on for their seemingly obligatory substitute appearance in the last 15 minutes? Why, in two successive transfer windows, did he fail to sign a natural right-back or an attacker with pace?
The Black Cats' entire recruitment policy under O'Neill lacked direction, perhaps a reflection of the time he had spent out of the game prior to his arrival as well as an indictment of the standard of scouting at the Stadium of Light.
The squad O'Neill bequeaths to his successor is no better than the one he inherited despite an outlay of more than £30m. It has the same deficiencies - “a squad of squad players” as one observer so eloquently opined.
There is one other factor in all of this, one name that might have made a difference. John Robertson had been O'Neill's key right-hand man in all of his previous positions, his confidante, sounding-board and bridge to the players under his control.
Family commitments meant he was unable to persuade Robertson to join him in the North-East, and it is tempting to conclude that some of the old magic disappeared with the Scotsman. Just as Clough could not function as effectively without Peter Taylor, so O'Neill appears to have been lost without Robertson's support.
ALL of which leaves the boyhood Sunderland supporter in the position in which he finds himself today. The job which was supposed to have been the highlight of his career has brought him crashing to his knees.
“The fact I have this fondness for the club will not make any difference,” said O'Neill, with unerring prescience, on the day of his unveiling. “It might get me two or three games extra grace, but like everybody else, I'll ultimately be judged on results. You have to win games – really, that's the only thing that matters.”
On Saturday evening, he was proved correct.
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