Martin O'Neill might thank Paolo Di Canio

IT might not be something Martin O’Neill is ever willing to admit – but Paolo Di Canio did him a favour on Sunday evening.

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

IT might not be something Martin O’Neill is ever willing to admit – but Paolo Di Canio did him a favour on Sunday evening.

This would not be an easy thing to stomach for such a proud man, someone whose office is now filled by someone with 18 months experience in the lower leagues of English football.

For just short of 24 hours, all talk among Sunderland fans on social media – and of those of us that work in the media – was about what went wrong during O’Neill’s 18 months as manager of the football club.

And then came the Di Canio announcement.

Since that moment, when the world seemed to stop for a second or so, there has been plenty to discuss, some topics more relevant than others.

And what that did was to push the Northern Irishman into the shadows when in other circumstances his record would be pored over and discussed on every public platform imaginable.

What happens next at Sunderland is far more interesting that what went wrong.

Middlesbrough manager Tony Mowbray got to know O’Neill a bit over the past year and a half and is a fan of him as a manager and human being.

Mowbray is too polite, and indeed careful, to give away every thought he’s had over the past five days about the events 30 miles or so north of him.

However, he was surprised as anyone that the O’Neill-Sunderland marriage did not have a happy ending.

The Middlesbrough manager said: “I think, first and foremost, when Martin leaves any club it means you ask the question how did that come about.

“Because over the last God knows how many years, Martin has been one of the best managers in British football.

“He was touted for Manchester United and was mentioned every time the England job came up.

“And yet the reality is he invested £30million on Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Danny Graham and whoever else – but I don’t know the answer as to what happened.

“You look at what QPR have spent, I suppose. Investment doesn’t always equate to success, although the teams that do spend are the ones fighting for the honours.

“It’s always been the case in football that it’s about how you spend the money, and not how much.”

If this sounds like a criticism of O’Neill’s signing policy then that would be the wrong impression, even if the transfers haven’t worked. Rather, Mowbray was more puzzled that Sunderland never looked like an O’Neill team, which were always strong, confident and tended to score goals and win games.

Mowbray said: “I would never sit here and question Martin’s choice of players, other than to say that I’ve studied him for a number of years.

“I faced him when we were and West Brom and Aston Villa and also up at Scotland with Celtic and Hibs, his team got the ball in the box, there was generally a big striker and two wingers.

“His teams liked to play with width and score goals. They entertained the supporters.

“What went wrong? He invested £10million in Adam Johnson and it really hasn’t happened. You watch him for England or when he was at Manchester City and think ‘what a talent’.

“Maybe there was a lack of chemistry up there. It’s perhaps unfair me saying that because I didn’t watch every Sunderland game. I have a lot of time for Martin O’Neil. I think he’s a great manager and a great man when you get to know him.

“Maybe to some journalists at times he can seem a bit off. Once he trusts someone they will see he’s a good man, a good football man. He will be disappointed.”

Sunderland always felt like it was O’Neill’s last big job.

Certainly by the end, and even Mowbray noticed this, O’Neill’s enthusiasm had evaporated. He was talking down his players, which you never hear from a manager in trouble.

At the end of his time at Celtic, when he left because of his wife’s illness, and then Villa when he fell out with the owner, the spark was very much alive inside him.

There has been talk in the Republic of Ireland of O’Neill taking over from Giovanni Trapatonni, but at this moment in time it’s difficult to see the now former Sunderland manager reappearing elsewhere.

Asked if he thought O’Neill would return to management, Mowbray said: “I think the right club at the right time… why not?

“Martin will be at a time in his life when he doesn’t want to work with a restricted budget. I have to be careful what I say because I don’t want to upset him.

“When you have achieved what he has, you probably want to win things. He wants to compete at the top of the table. Why did he leave Aston Villa? He got top six for four years in a row and yet he wants to win something. He really wanted to get to the Champions League and win an FA Cup.

“Maybe he felt at Sunderland, and this is me having watched him on the touchline and we played them twice, that he’d lost that almost manic behaviour, that drive he used to have.

“Was it because he felt drained by not seeing a line of trophies? I’m not sure. I have huge respect for him. I am disappointed for him and Sunderland that it didn’t work out, I have to say.”

Mowbray is far from a loan voice there.

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