Martin O’Neill up to the challenge of changing perceptions

UP in the gods at the Stadium of Light, Roy Keane might have been excused a feeling of deja vu.

Martin O'Neill

UP in the gods at the Stadium of Light, Roy Keane might have been excused a feeling of deja vu.

The phlegmatic former Sunderland manager is paid to proffer his opinions to a nationwide audience these days but on Tuesday, he must have felt as one with Wearside as he delivered his analysis as a studio guest of ITV.

“Typical Sunderland,” he once spat in the press room at Stoke City – the scene of a Black Cats capitulation that he found difficult to comprehend. A few days earlier they had defeated Newcastle to hand him one of his most memorable results as Sunderland boss – but Keane was furious at the complacency he saw in front of him.

Whether it was a lack of belief or ambition, Keane didn’t like what he had seen.

He departed three years ago now, unable to deliver on the fiercely high standards he had set for himself or his club. But he might have allowed himself one of those wry smiles on Tuesday at the fact Sunderland still retain that infuriating capacity to disappoint at key moments.

Challenging this default fatalism will be Martin O’Neill’s biggest challenge at the Stadium of Light. Like Keane he embraces the both the size and scope of the club, and there will be none of the whining about expectation that soured his predecessor’s relationship with the Wearside public.

But for all the fantastic advances made on his watch, only converting the promise and potential of a heavyweight club that has punched below its weight over the last decade will turn him into a Wearside legend.

Asked whether Sunderland should really be reaching quarter-finals as a matter of course, O’Neill plotted a diplomatic line. He is a thoughtful, intelligent man and he dodged the pitfalls of that particular conversation well.

He said: “In terms of recent history it was a great moment and it was fantastic to know there were queues outside.

“It’s great and I’d like to think this is just the start of things and we can look forward to those type of games, but you have to fight for every inch in this league and just because you’ve finished 10th one year it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically improve.

“To be honest, I don’t want people to start thinking we’re an established side. If we got 25 consecutive years in the Premier League then I’ll think maybe you might be right, but you have to fight for every point in this league.

“Someone asked me did I think the occasion got to us. It’s something you’ve got to ask yourself. It can happen, you can play disappointingly on the evening and it wasn’t something I was hoping for or expecting.

“It’s a shame because we’d had a decent run and if you’d told me before the game at Peterborough that we would know the semi-final opponents then I’d have taken that. We’d got to that stage but Everton performed very well.

“David Moyes said to me that was the best they’d played all season. That was no consolation!”

Tuesday was so difficult to expect because of the faith that Sunderland supporters have in their manager.

At no time since Keane was blazing a trail into the Premier League in his first season have the Black Cats looked so convincing and for most Sunderland fans, there is a feeling that perhaps the club’s biggest asset is in the dug-out. It is a conviction that should out-last Tuesday’s disappointment. He is an intuitive, capable manager well in touch with the reality of Sunderland’s position.

And in his answer to a question about the Black Cats’ ambitions, it was discernible to note a hint to the boardroom. His message was clear – Sunderland need to improve.

“I’m not so sure that we can afford (to let the season peter out),” he said.

“We’ve got really difficult games ahead of us. Manchester City for a start and then an Easter programme that includes Tottenham and Everton. That’s enough for us to focus on.

“In the longer term we have to look at it. I’m delighted that with a little bit of luck we’ll be in this division next year.

“I’m surprised there’s much being made of whether there’s anything to play for. There should be. The fact that we gained these points much more quickly than we expected doesn’t mean we can suddenly coast through.

“We haven’t got the ability to coast through. We have to be at full stretch every week and if you’re not, you’ll get turned over.

“So, while we’re disappointed about Tuesday, we have to put it in the context of the last few months. Sometimes you get carried away with things, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

O’Neill will need to lift himself after appearing visibly downbeat for much of yesterday’s briefing. He denies he felt the defeat any worse than the losses at West Brom or Blackburn, but he has needed to remind himself of what a good job he has done.

“I’m always crest-fallen. That’s half my problem, because it’s always been the case since I was a player,” he said.

“No I’m not (a grumpy old man) but I get disappointed and I’ve always been like that and that’s me.

“You start beating yourself up about something and then you find that people want to beat you up anyway and they think that’s a damn good excuse to beat the crap out of you.

“But I’ll just go back and think of that December time when I came in here . . .”

 
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