Martin O'Neill managing nicely in aim for top-10 placing

MARTIN O’Neill’s abilities as a manager can perhaps be best judged on what happens to football clubs after he leaves them.

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

MARTIN O’Neill’s abilities as a manager can perhaps be best judged on what happens to football clubs after he leaves them.

Starting with Leicester City, where he made his name as a coach, they have spent just three years in the Premier League since he moved on in 2000 and even had a season in League One.

Compare that to the four consecutive top-ten finishes in the top flight under the Irishman and it is night and day.

Celtic won trophies, and lots of them, after O’Neill parted company with them in 2005 to care for wife Geraldine, who at that time was battling cancer.

However, in the two-horse race which is Scottish football, it is Rangers who have won more trophies post-O’Neill.

Then there is Aston Villa, who O’Neill’s Sunderland face today.

In his last season in Birmingham, he took Villa to within two wins of a Champions League place, lost a FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea and, most heartbreaking of all, was beaten by Manchester United in the League Cup final.

Just look at Villa now. An average side at best who are not yet clear of the relegation threat, even if that is more unlikely than likely given their 15th position.

What O’Neill does, and does very well, is take a once-great club who have fallen on hard times and completely transforms them.

“I am part of Aston Villa’s past now and hopefully part of Sunderland’s future,” said O’Neill yesterday – and every supporter on Wearside will, or should, be delighted with that.

Sunderland are very much like the previous clubs he managed in that everything is in place in terms of stadium, support and tradition.

All they need now is a winning team.

He brought that back to Villa in the sense they at least challenged the bigger and richer clubs, something they had not done for some time. O’Neill was asked whether he believed he could replicate his success at Villa at the Stadium of Light.

He said: “For Sunderland Football Club? Of course it is achievable, absolutely.

“It is achievable, the club is big enough to be able to have those sort of demands put on it, I am hoping.

“Whether we are able to do it or not is another thing, but that should be the ambition at the football club.”

With regards to this season, O’Neill ruled out finishing above the Merseyside clubs Liverpool and Everton, who are in eighth and ninth position.

He claimed his side would need to take at least ten points out of a possible 12 over the last four games to even give themselves a chance of achieving this. At least that is what he said in public. Chances are he is telling his players a top-eight position or even higher remains a distinct possibility.

For that to happen, though, struggling Villa must be beaten today as O’Neill goes head-to-head with an old rival, Alex McLeish.

Asked about their relationship when they were at Celtic and Rangers, O’Neill aid: “I never went out to dinner with him, let’s put it that way and I would not want to have been seen in any corner of Glasgow eating with the Rangers manager.

“It might have been the last time I would have eaten myself.

“He has been an old adversary for some time and I admire him greatly.”

McLeish will not be the only old friend he will see today. Aston Villa’s stricken captain Stiliyan Petrov worked with O’Neill for nine years and the Sunderland boss has been in constant contact with the Bulgarian since the awful news he was battling leukaemia was revealed three weeks ago.

O’Neill added: “Stiliyan is going through many courses of chemo right now. I have seen him and he is a remarkable young man, very upbeat.

“It is going to be pretty tough ride, but he is ready for it and if the courses are as I think I know they are then he may be at the game.

“I have not spoken to him for 48 hours, but depending how his chemo has gone if he is there I will certainly be saying hello to him.

“He was terrific for me and that was at Celtic as well.”

O’Neill will try to make some team changes today, but he is restricted because of injuries.

Connor Wickham was going to start, but went over on his ankle during training so he is out.

The manager said: “He was one of the younger players I was thinking about for games.

“We may have been starting him and were seeing how he developed in the week and he then got injured.

“I know we have talked about this before, but I want as many points as possible to keep momentum going.

“Younger players starting a game is probably more important than them coming on with 20 minutes.”


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