ON a night when the minds of English football fans inevitably turned to managerial credentials, two of the North East’s incumbents furthered theirs.
Only Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland will play in the fifth round of the FA Cup, but there was no doubting Tony Mowbray has had a similarly spectacular effect on Middlesbrough.
Both at the clubs they supported as boys, neither O’Neill nor Mowbray are likely to manage the Three Lions any time soon, having too much fun performing miracles in jobs they must have thought had passed them by.
With Alan Pardew watching from the stands, the North East is well blessed with managerial talent. Newcastle’s boss will have appreciated the astonishing way his neighbours have revived fortunes along the A19.
O’Neill arrived at Sunderland with a glowing reputation, Mowbray’s battered after a difficult time following in his footsteps at Celtic.
Two managers ago, O’Neill was interviewed for by England only for them to choose Boro’s smooth-talking manager Steve McClaren. With the job vacant, Black Cats fans will be hoping they stick to their promise to replace Fabio Capello with an Englishman.
But since taking over Sunderland, O’Neill has enhanced an already impressive reputation. Like Boro when Mowbray returned, the Black Cats were in a bad way when he took over.
Now Boro are serious contenders to be in next season’s top-flight, the Wearsiders perhaps kicking themselves that they had not brought O’Neill in a few weeks earlier to give them a more serious chance of European qualification.
Ten Premier League games in and his side are its form team, having only come a cropper at Chelsea and Spurs.
O’Neill has achieved it with an approach as no-nonsense as Mowbray’s defending once was.
Ask his players what has made the difference and you rarely get a very illuminating answer.
The changes have been so subtle, many have scarcely noticed. Whereas under Steve Bruce crippling injuries caused constant shufflling of the pack, O’Neill has refused to be shaken from his familiar course.
There is nothing fancy about his 4-4-1-1 and No. 10 Stephane Sessegnon apart, it is pretty easy to predict what his players will do, pressing high up the pitch, getting crosses in and defending in numbers.
Stopping them is a different matter. Partly because of results, partly via O’Neill’s famed powers of motivation, his players are brimful of confidence.
Why else would centre-back Michael Turner find himself on the end of a Sessegnon pass in the centre-forward position, or Jack Colback open the scoring last night so beautifully?
More than a year longer in his job, Mowbray has also made few additions, yet in personnel his team is very different to Gordon Strachan’s.
While the Scot wanted “men” in the Championship, Mowbray leans heavily on boys who, schooled by Boro’s academy, have the technique to play his passing game. Six of last night’s starters came from Rockliffe.
His one indulgence has been Lukas Jutkiewicz, last night partnering full debutant Curtis Main, signed on a free from Darlington. Jutkiewicz cost £1.3m but it looks money well spent.
Like Sunderland’s opening goal, Boro’s came from some fairly route one football, Main outjumping John O’Shea and Jutkiewicz shrugging off Turner to convert the knockdown.
Few teams have caused the Black Cats so many problems this season.
It will be interesting to see how far these teams have progressed by the time they meet again – hopefully in next season’s Premier League.