IT was a cruel way to treat an invited guest. “We start our round-up with Sunderland, who continue to struggle without Steve,” said Colin Murray with a cheeky glance at Steve Bruce as he introduced highlights of the Black Cats’ latest win.
It was just a bit of Match of the Day 2 fun and will surely have been taken as such, but Bruce knows as well as anyone Murray’s sarcasm was well placed.
Rarely does changing a manager mid-season have such a positive effect on a football club.
Eighteen games in, we are well past the point of the shot in the arm a new face in the dugout can bring. O’Neill has had two games more than his predecessor, and the transformation is astonishing. From being mired in the relegation zone, the Black Cats are breathing down Liverpool’s necks, dreaming of Europe via the FA Cup.
Bruce had a point when he argued he needed more time to bed in 11 new players, and that in leading the club to a rare top-half finish he had earned it. Equally, there is no disputing what a good job his replacement O’Neill has done.
We will never know how the slightly reluctant TV pundit would have fared had he not been sacked in November, but it is hard to imagine him doing as well as O’Neill. Indeed, there are very few managers you could imagine enjoying that sort of instant, sustained success. Only the Manchester clubs have gathered more points during his reign – and with considerably better squads.
The Ulsterman has had a transfer window to help, but with no one sold, his only signings were loans. Centre-back Sotirios Kyrgiakos is yet to feature in a game, and left-back Wayne Bridge’s start against Liverpool was his first.
His 11 wins from 18 games have been achieved with Bruce’s players. Every game is a further vindication of his shrewd eye for a player, and a slap in the face for his powers of motivation.
Ask Sunderland’s players how the transformation has been achieved and you will get precious few answers. The changes, it would seem, have been so small as to be almost imperceptible from the dressing room.
In essence, O’Neill has given his team confidence and organisation. The rest has flowed from there.
As the win over Liverpool showed, there is a rock-solid feel to the Wearsiders. When the opposition have the ball, they press high up the field – an energetic approach but a relatively simple one for professional athletes to carry out. When the Black Cats are in possession, they can carry out O’Neill’s instruction to get more bodies in the box safe in the knowledge the defensive unit can cope without them. They average half a goal a game more than Bruce’s side.
It is hardly brain surgery, but sometimes the cleverest ideas are the simplest.
In hindsight, Bruce had perhaps run out of steam as well as terrace goodwill. A fresh pair of eyes and enthusiasm no 60-year-old should be able to muster so regularly have done the trick.
It was not, however, something just anyone could have done.
Mark Hughes is one of English football’s most promising managers, and could well have been offered Bruce’s job had O’Neill not wanted it.
But the Welshman has not justified the slightly odd decision Queens Park Rangers’ slightly odd owners made in shipping out Neil Warnock to recruit him.
Ten games have yielded two wins – one against League One opposition. The Rs have dropped into the relegation zone – something they never did under Warnock. £10m was spent on strikers in January, joined by a free transfer and two loan signings. It is to early to say the change has backfired, but it is certainly no quick fix.
The same can be said of Wolverhampton Wanderers, a job Bruce thought was his until they apparently opted at the 11th hour for Terry Connor – so far down the Molineux wishlist he must have been on page two. Mick McCarthy seemed to have run his course, but the former Sunderland boss looked far more likely to keep the Wolves from the trapdoor than his inexperienced assistant.
Warnock himself, the master of Football League promotions, took four matches to record his first Leeds United win, at a lacklustre Middlesbrough. If even he cannot inspire quick results in the Championship, it must be harder than it looks.
While QPR and Wolves wonder if they have done the right thing, Steve Kean is sitting pretty on top of the mini-league at the wrong end of the top-flight table. No manager in the division has been less popular or looked more likely to be clearing his desk than Blackburn Rovers’ but the club’s laughing-stock owners have stood by their man and look increasingly likely to be vindicated.
Bolton Wanderers appear to be picking up long after Owen Coyle seemed to be walking through the “dead man” stage and who would even bet against Roberto Martinez pulling off another improbable escape?
Changing managers has done wonders for Sunderland but any chairman with an itchy trigger finger ought to think twice before following suit. There are not many Martin O’Neills.