'After the first four months, it has been disastrous' - Mark Douglas on Martin O'Neill

AN old friend from the Midlands told me about the day Martin O'Neill invited all of the Second City press pack to an end of season dinner.

Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill
Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill

AN old friend from the Midlands told me about the day Martin O'Neill invited all of the Second City press pack to an end of season dinner.

It was in 2009 - just after he had been roundly criticised for deciding to prioritise the chase for the top four by sending a weakened team to Moscow in the latter stages of the UEFA Cup.

Relations had grown icy between himself and supporters and his local media.

Yet he was charm personified right up until he stood up from the table and thanked everyone for their attendance.

Then came the pay-off: "And don't ever, ever doubt me again."

We waited and waited to see that sort of snarling determination but it never got to that round here.

In truth, O'Neill worried, fretted and squirmed his way through an anxious 15 months at the Stadium of Light. It is a great frustration for me - and probably for the Sunderland fans - that the whole darn thing has felt so flat for so long.

Perhaps that is being kind of a man who leaves behind little legacy at the Stadium of Light.

After the first four months, it has been disastrous.

There were moments: a stirring win at Wigan, his first game against Blackburn.

He discovered James McClean, and made Sunderland supporters believe they might make a serious impact on the FA Cup for a short while.

But so much of it was unsatisfactory considering the pedigree of the manager who replaced Steve Bruce.

Tactics, PR, lamentable recruitment (he never did pluck up the courage to pick Kader Mangane, who has been so poor in training that eyebrows have been raised), press conference performances... None of them were right.

Something was rotten in the court of O'Neill and it was clear change was required.

No-one for a minute suspected that change would be the manager - and certainly not before April.

Yet this decision reveals plenty about Ellis Short, who has wielded the axe for the second time in 13 months as chairman, owner and omnipotent red and white leader.

He keeps his counsel, does Mr Short, but he is clearly not someone to be messed with.

Over a year since Niall Quinn's exit, the club's hierarchy has changed beyond all recognition - with O'Neill following the long-serving Lesley Callaghan and Steve Walton out of the door.

Given his low opinion of the recruitment - a huge bugbear on O'Neill's part - I suspect that Pop Robson's position might be under similar scrutiny.

He is not a man who has much time for failure. But this decision seems extraordinarily daring.

Sunderland have seven games left and today's defeat - while gnawing and frustrating - was to be expected, along with the resilience of their relegation rivals.

We knew it would get worse before it got better.

A new man must inject instant impetus into the club, and must work with the same pool of underperforming players that O'Neill did.

There are not many candidates out there who will take the supporters with them instantly and Steve McClaren - the bookies favourite - would encounter some hostility from Sunderland supporters.

It is a difficult job and to assume that a change means improvement is ignoring Newcastle's experience with Alan Shearer in 2008 - and that of Hull with Iain Dowie and any number of others.

I suspect it will be an interim appointment for a Red Adair-style figure.

That leaves me feeling uneasy.

Where is the planning, where is the thought for the long-term?

We always assumed these were important to Short, the man who plunged money into the Academy and spoke so warmly of O'Neill in the close season.

Perhaps not as important as the £60million TV money that Sunderland stand to lose out on.

Whatever happens, there will have to be an almighty inquest on Wearside this summer.

Whatever uncertainty Sunderland fans might have felt at 3pm, you can bet it feels a heck of a lot worse now.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer