LONDON: Martin O’Neill – newly ‘freed’ by Sunderland from the stresses of a relegation battle – was once close to becoming England manager, a remarkable salute to the talents of the Ulsterman who learned about the job as a player under the idiosyncratic Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.
In the years at the end of the 1970s when Forest won the European Champions Cup twice O’Neill was a hard-working but perceptive midfielder. He scored eight goals in 64 appearances for his country over a decade and, as a university of law and criminology, was predicted a bright career in management – if he even decided to stay in football.
He did, starting in non-League with Grantham then later leading Leicester City to three League Cup finals and keeping them in the Premier League against the odds.
As a boyhood fan of Celtic he could not resist the call from Parkhead in 2000 and found Paradise indeed: O’Neill led the Hoops to three Scottish league titles and three cups. They reached the UEFA Cup Final and lost only in extra time to the Porto side which Jose Mourinho steered on, a year later, to Champions League glory.
O’Neill was now considered a top contender either for England or for Manchester United. But the Football Association messed him around, Sir Alex Ferguson showed no sign of retiring at Old Trafford and his wife fell ill, so O’Neill stepped out of the game for a year.
In 2006 he took what appeared a ‘holding’ post at Aston Villa. In four seasons they finished on the fringe of the European places but O’Neill’s ambition was restricted by the spending limits imposed by American owner Randy Lerner.
O’Neill’s frustration erupted. He quit on the eve of the 2010-11 season and then waited for “the right offer.” But, as Rafa Benitez – another manager with a high opinion of his own value – discovered, the “right offer” does not come along often, if at all.
After 15 months O’Neill was persuaded back by the sentimental lure of managing his ‘other’ favourite club, Sunderland, in December 2011.
This was the appointment for which Sunderland fans had dreamed and Ellis Short – ominously another American owner – was delighted with a run of seven victories in O’Neill’s first 10 league games which staved off the threat of relegation.
Short came up with £22m for O’Neill to spend last summer on Scotland striker Steven Fletcher and England winger Adam Johnson. In January O’Neill was provided with more cash funding to add Danny Graham and Alfred N’Diaye to the squad – all in vain.
Last Saturday Sunderland lost 1-0 at home to Manchester United, their eighth league game without a win. Losing to United is no crime; that happens to most clubs. No need to panic.
Indeed, O’Neill appeared perfectly calm after the game and confident that Sunderland would push on to maintain their place in the Premier League.
“We were tentative and nervous at the start,” he said, “but then we stormed into the game in the second half. I was very pleased with the team. It bodes well.”
Maybe. But not for O’Neill. Three hours later came a club statement that Sunderland had “parted company” with O’Neill, thanked him for his efforts and wished him well for the future. He was the fifth Premier casualty of term after Roberto Di Matteo (Chelsea), Nigel Adkins (Southampton), Brian McDermott (Reading) and Mark Hughes (QPR).
The Black Cats’ last victory had come at Wigan on January 19, and with trips to European champions Chelsea and rivals Newcastle to come ahead of Everton’s visit to the Stadium of Light on April 20, results could grow worse before improving. Clearly Short must hope that the shock of O’Neill’s dismissal will jolt the team into raising its game.
Old England heroes Alan Shearer and Steve Coppell as well as former Sunderland winger Kevin Kilbane all criticised the timing of the decision, with only seven games remaining and no chance to buy in any new players.
Coppell said: “We’ve so many foreign owners who don’t understand the heritage of English football . . . a way of doing things has almost gone out of the window.”
Along with Martin O’Neill and, possibly, Sunderland’s serious hopes of avoiding the drop.
K E I R R A D N E D G E
# # # #