He’s back. One of the most interesting, intelligent, if
enigmatic managers in the game has returned after a 15-month absence.
is about to be announced as Steve Bruce's successor at Sunderland. And while the
club lacks the same substantial body of rent-a-quotes hanging around outside
its stadium hoping for a chance to address the nation via Sky Sports News'
cameras as its Newcastle neighbours, we can safely suggest the Sunderland supporters
will be largely delighted.
After the hapless, red-faced Santa-alike Bruce,
widely suspected to be a Geordie fifth columnist on Wearside, here is someone about
to take charge who really feels for the club.
As a kid growing up in Northern Ireland in the sixties O’Neill
supported Sunderland. He really did. Unlike Robbie Keane, who apparently had a
childhood passion for every club he subsequently played for, O'Neill actually did
follow the red and white stripes as a kid.
Indeed, his support of Sunderland is a telling mark of a
lifelong idiosyncrasy. While all his mates in Ulster in the sixties lined up
behind Liverpool, Leeds or Manchester United, O'Neill went with something that
would mark him out as different in the playground. Since he was 20 by the time
Bob Stokoe was dancing across the Wembley pitch in celebration of an epic
Sunderland FA Cup victory, no-one could accuse him of being a glory-hunter. A
different kid, he had long espoused something different.
And O'Neill has always been a different kind of football
manager. As a player under Brian Clough he watched and learned from a master in
action, learning as much what didn’t work as what did.
O’Neill himself had a
testy relationship with the cussed old boy, rarely feeling sufficiently valued.
Clough thought the best way to motivate the bright young Ulsterman on his wing
was to irritate him. It may have worked, O’Neill was forever desperate to prove
he should have been more properly treated and ran his socks off in the Forest
Still, he felt damaged by the manager’s public (and possibly
private) disdain. And, when he became a boss, it was something he determined
would not happen under his own watch. As a result players love playing for O’Neill.
He exudes public confidence in their abilities, which in turn breeds private
confidence. They all believe he believes in them. O’Neill teams are usually a
sum greater than their individual parts. Which is precisely what Sunderland
need at the moment, someone to enthuse a squad that should be faring better
than it is. In that respect alone, the board have made a wise appointment.
But for all his work ethic, his mastery of psychology, his
team-building skill, O’Neill has not, as so many predicted he would in his
early days as a boss, reached the very top of the game. When he walked out of
Leicester and went to Celtic it seemed his career was on an upward trajectory that
would surely finish with an English Champions League side.
That was certainly
his ambition. And his significant reserves of self-esteem suggested he would
not have been intimidated had the call come. But it never did. Despite taking
Celtic to the Uefa Cup final and wining everything Scotland had to offer, with
two of the leading berths permanently occupied, he has never had so much of a
sniff of a job at Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City or Tottenham. And his own
post-Scotland attempts to break into the cartel with Aston Villa ended with acrimony
when he walked away suddenly and before he could properly bring about the
After 15 months out of the game since that Villa walkout,
his horizons have inevitably reduced even as the gap between the top and the
rest has separated yet further. Out of work managers tend not to get promotions
to the very top.
Even by a man as certain of his talents as O’Neill, Sunderland
will not be regarded as a championship-challenging possibility. Not, however,
that his decision to go there is entirely romantic. At the age of 59, no longer
the wunderkind of football management, he has clearly decided he needs to re-enter
the game where he can; the longer he waits the less likely it is the big ones
will come calling. Wearside could be the very place to remind the best of his
Thus it is a shrewd appointment by Ellis Short and Niall
Quinn. Sunderland have come in for O’Neill at precisely the right time. A man
keen to re-establish himself as one of the best in the game and a club anxious
to cement its Premier League status: it is a marriage made in footballing
heaven. Under Martin O’Neill, for Sunderland the only way is up.