What has happened to Martin O'Neill's Sunderland?

SUNDERLAND'S dismal form under Martin O’Neill has now lasted as long as the brilliance which preceded it.

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

IT is amazing the effect a poor derby can have on a Sunderland manager. Martin O’Neill has suffered two in a week and a half.

Having waited so long for him to become their manager – the job could have been his before Roy Keane if only personal circumstances were different – the Wearside public were prepared to be patient.

They did not have to be. O’Neill’s first 21 matches were astonishing. Starts like that buy managers time, but O’Neill is in danger of using his up.

Since the pathetic showing against Newcastle United, the mood among supporters has turned.

To follow it with such an inept display against Middlesbrough on Tuesday night, forfeiting the chance to progress into the Capital One Cup quarter-finals, was too much for many. There were thousands of empty seats around the Stadium of Light when Phil Dowd blew the final whistle on a 1-0 defeat, but still the boos rang noisily around it.

O’Neill has been in his dream job for 11 months and the big picture looks none too pretty.

The first half was brilliant. Maintained over a 38-game season, it would have translated to a third-place finish in last season’s Premier League.

They could not maintain it, though.

An FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Everton not only spoiled last season’s good work, it has hampered this term’s too. Since kick-off that night, Sunderland have beaten only one top-flight side – notoriously slow starters Wigan Athletic. Treating cup matches as league ones, that would translate as a point a match. Thirty-six points from 38 sent Bolton Wanderers down in 2011-12.

Steve Bruce’s last 20 games were also effectively worth 20 points too. He was sacked.

A game on March 27 is, it seems, still hanging over the Black Cats.

Sunderland went into it in great form and were dreadful. It was about as comprehensive a 2-0 defeat that night against David Moyes’ men as they come.

These things happen. Manchester United were destroyed 6-1 at Old Trafford last season, having taken Arsenal apart 8-2.

For both clubs those matches are ancient – if painful – history. Sunderland have not yet got over their defeat.

If you look at the right statistics, it has not been that bad a start to the season.

The Black Cats have lost just once – at Manchester City – and have the Premier League’s second-best defensive record.

They may not be losing but they are not winning either. Victory over 10-man Wigan and two lower-division sides in the Capital One Cup is hardly cause to get the bunting out.

They did not lose to Newcastle – something to be grateful for given their poor recent record against the neighbours, but the Wear-Tyne derby showed avoiding defeat is not enough.

Like the Latics, Newcastle also had to play with 10 men, in their case for an hour.

It is an advantage any team capable of shifting the ball around accurately and at pace ought to routinely take advantage of. Right now, Sunderland are not such a team.

They can park the bus, as at Arsenal on the opening day and Stoke City last week.

Ask them to do any more and things get more awkward.

That might do for a newly-promoted team, but Sunderland fans did not pay £22m on two players this season to make do with mediocrity.

One way or another, that money came from supporters’ pockets. Some more stats for you. In the 20-game sequence which started with the FA Cup defeat, Sunderland have scored 16.

Steven Fletcher is their only player to score in the league this season.

Like his manager, he started spectacularly (five goals in four games) but has tailed off. Their top scorer last month? Demba Ba, the Newcastle striker who put through his own net.

Enough of the stats, why?

Sunderland’s defensive manager has created a defensive team.

That was never quite the plan – it was supposed to be a counter-attacking unit, which is why £10m winger Adam Johnson arrived from Manchester City on the day Fletcher was bought from Wolverhampton Wanderers.

However, the team looks scared to attack when the opportunity arises. With players like Johnson, James McClean and Stéphane Sessègnon, that ought to be an impossibility.

The problem is, they have looked nothing like the Johnson, McClean and Sessègnon Sunderland fans know.

Playing at the Stadium of Light used to inspire Johnson to brilliance for Manchester City. Coming out of the home dressing room does not have the same effect.

Hampered by injury he may have been, but arguably the country’s best right-winger has looked nothing of the sort.

McClean’s confidence has evaporated since leaving Wearside as the Republic of Ireland’s great hope for the European Championships and returning with splinters in his backside.

On Tuesday, Sessègnon showed flickers of last season’s outstanding form. Sunderland have waited three months. O’Neill’s apparent indifference to getting any pre-season football into him – he was told not to bother getting a visa for a match in Sweden because of the hassle – has come back to bite him.

The thought he could be playing elsewhere for more money might be a distraction too.

The result has been Fletcher has been left isolated.

What Fletcher is being presented with at the moment is pretty underwhelming. Now he knows how those who pay his wages feel.

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