At Sunderland Martin O’Neill recreated many of the methods of Brian Clough’s bygone era, yet failed to learn its main lesson, argues Stuart Rayner
SUNDERLAND never had the good fortune to be managed by one of their greatest strikers but, like predecessor Roy Keane, Martin O’Neill was at least a disciple of Brian Clough.
Yet the super-intelligent Ulsterman failed to learn perhaps the key lesson of Clough’s time in management.
O’Neill only ever played under the Teessider when trusty right-hand man Peter Taylor was by his side. Without Taylor, Clough was never as brilliant.
O’Neill’s 16 months in charge of Sunderland were a fantastic advert for the qualities of John Robertson.
The man in the opposite dugout for O’Neill’s final game, Sir Alex Ferguson, has had eight different assistants during his 27 years at Manchester United. Few have been unable to share in his success.
O’Neill has only ever had one. When he took the Sunderland job in December 2011, O’Neill kept the post of assistant manager vacant in the hope of persuading Robertson to relocate from the Midlands.
He never talked around the chain-smoker Clough had such a soft spot for and crucially refused to appoint someone else.
From the manager down, Team O’Neill were a group of endearing eccentrics.
New faces had been added along the journey from non-league Grantham to the Premier League, most recently his former player Steve Guppy.
Hindsight shows it was not a team strong enough to cope without one of its key components.
After a brilliant four-month honeymoon far exceeding even the most optimistic of expectations, O’Neill seemed to lose the ability to inspire players who apparently grew immune to his trademark infectious enthusiasm.
Clough’s fondness for the gentle put-down let his players know who was boss, but sadly most of the modern lot are too used to mollycoddling and the ego-massaging of hangers-on to take it in the right spirit when O’Neill did.
Whether his usual middle-man to the players Robertson could have buttered them up behind the scenes we will never know but the famously rebellious former winger should have been able to call on first-hand experience when it came to coaxing the best out of James McClean, whose fleeting brilliance O’Neill inspired, then watched helpless as it fizzled out with his own. Without those motivational skills, there was not enough else to fall back on.
Team O’Neill was a group of close friends schooled in the same distant era. Guppy was the only man young enough to relate to the players. O’Neill is openly slightly befuddled by their generation, from their bizarre fashions to their social media obsessions.
In an era of sharp-suited managers it was refreshing to see him leaping up and down wearing his heart on his sleeve and the number 31 – for reasons he never explained – on the rugby shirt which was his version of Clough’s green jumper.
Always in the background was Steve Walford, well wrapped up in thick jacket and gloves, topped off by sawn-off tracksuit bottoms which left his calves exposed to the cold, only occasionally advancing to the touchline to whisper advice.
O’Neill had only been out of the game 27 months since flouncing out of Aston Villa in a manner so dramatic Clough would have been envious, but even in that time it seemed the game had moved on and left him behind.
On his first day he talked giddily of aspiring to Barcelona football but the fare was seldom more than functional.
The similarity was a high pressing game which evaporated after last season’s FA Cup quarter-final replay defeat at home to Everton – less a turning point, more a U-turn as dramatic as any by a politician.
When O’Neill played so successfully at Nottingham Forest squads were almost as tight as the shorts.
It is something O’Neill tried to recreate, which explained why his sides increasingly had a habit of running out of puff at the end of the season against fresher “rotated” players with more in the tank.
This term they could not build up a head of steam to run out of.
The squad O’Neill’s successor will inherit is embarrassingly small considering how much transfer money Ellis Short has pumped into Sunderland.
By the end O’Neill gave the impression of feeling short-changed but it was not the case. This season alone he spent £32m on four players.
When he needed quantity, O’Neill was only interested in quality.
His reluctance to shop overseas, in stark contrast to Steve Bruce’s, meant he rarely picked up a bargain.
Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson and Danny Graham would have been far cheaper if bought from the foreign markets every Premier League scouting system knows inside out.
When he looked aboard, in January, it was to Saudi Arabia, one of those leagues players traditionally move to when their hunger for money exceeds their desire and/or ability to play.
Meanwhile, O’Neill was unable to raise much offloading the many players he did not rate.
As a result Sunderland’s squad was fleshed out with free-transfer cast-offs like Louis Saha, Carlos Cuellar and James McFadden, no better and in fewer numbers than those O’Neill turned his back on.
In Clough’s heyday, Taylor was a master at identifying those written off too early for him to coax one last hurrah out of – but Clough’s heyday was more than three decades ago.