Martin O’Neill couldn’t help thinking about Christmas past as he considered the challenge that awaits Sunderland today.
Martin O’Neill couldn’t help thinking about Christmas past as he considered the challenge that awaits Sunderland today. Mark Douglas reports.
MARTIN O’Neill’s Christmas message is laced with caustic humour and optimism – and delivered with his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek.
Sunderland’s season has zigzagged in fortune and form, but after a defeat of Southampton that puts clear daylight between the Black Cats and their relegation rivals he was in fine spirits on Christmas Eve. That is until he started to think a bit deeper and lament the passing of his playing career, a period he is almost certain he will never top.
The Sunderland boss believes, to borrow a phrase from Wizzard’s classic festive toe-tapper, it is Christmas every day for professional footballers. But for managers? They are forever anticipating the next problem, fully aware that somewhere over the horizon is another hurdle to be overcome.
So while O’Neill is adamant that the festive period is his favourite time of the year, he also points out that he only enjoys it for an hour or two before the next Premier League engagement clouds his festive mood.
“I enjoy it for about an hour or two. I don’t think you can ever say you enjoy it, yet it is genuinely my favourite time of the year. I enjoy it for the hour or two but I am no different than any other manager. I was talking to Nigel Adkins about this after the game and he will soon look like me,” he said.
Reminded of a famous quote attributed to him a few years ago about footballers enjoying a charmed life, he stands by his belief that the stars of today should make the most of it.
Sunderland’s players were in on Christmas Day for a light session but there were long faces – which is exactly as O’Neill would expect it from a squad that will never be found wanting for professionalism or effort.
“I think that it is the most phenomenal life you can get,” he said.
“That is true, especially if you have a couple of years which are successful. I was lucky enough to be at Nottingham Forest for a few years and had a couple of successful years in Europe and that was fantastic. Every player has to enjoy the career.
“You get paid to stay fit and healthy, and as long as you do not have to endure serious injury it is a great career. If you are one of those players thinking of going into management I have one piece of advice: forget about it. That was a joke. It is genuinely great if young players want to step into management and think they can do it. And this idea you feel as if you know who is going to become a manager I don’t think you do at all.
“The playing is the ultimate and management is ok by comparison. To play and be involved in a successful side and win trophies or cups is really great.
“You actually get a different feeling as a manager, in a sense that you have that responsibility if you end up winning something.
“You feel it is really good because it is your team, but playing is the enjoyment and you only have to worry about yourself.”
That carefree feeling has been sorely missed of late, especially during a run that had Sunderland nervously glancing at the relegation zone and O’Neill himself having to rebuke rumours that his time at the Stadium of Light was coming to a close.
He said: “That is what my wife said to me recently – ‘Wasn’t it great in the days you were playing when your only complaint was seeing Cloughie on Monday morning to ask why you weren’t in the team?’”
O’Neill will certainly be enjoying life if his team can repeat their remarkable defeat of Manchester City a year ago, when they inflicted a rare defeat on the Citizens courtesy of one of the most resolute rearguard actions that the Stadium of Light has borne witness to.
Add to those defensive qualities Sunderland’s late goal – courtesy of Ji-Dong Won – and the incredible atmosphere that roared on the Black Cats and it is no wonder that O’Neill ranks that as one of the high points of his time on Wearside.
He said: “Everything we had held out for so long and we had couple of decent chances.
“(Nicklas) Bendtner had one in the first half and while Man City had great possession, the tables were turned.
“Your judgement on what you build at a football club personally is in the results and we have to win a lot more games.
“Managers talk about infrastructures and so on but sorry we are all about results.”
O’Neill feels that his Sunderland side are playing a team today who are sure to challenge for the championship once again. It will be a big ask.
“They are chasing Man U they are champions and have so many good players it doesn’t matter who they chose,” he said.
“They are still chasing the championship and being out of European football can out total concentration on that and gap is far from insurmountable.”