WHATEVER happened to Martin O’Neill? You remember him, don’t you? The football manager from Northern Ireland who had more energy than a neutron bomb and whose teams never knew when they were beaten.
He kicked every ball on the touchline. His interviews could be spiky or funny and never less than highly entertaining. He was more a force of nature than a human being. His players loved him. There wasn’t a brick wall built that they wouldn’t run through in a bid to get a hint of a smile from their gaffer.
There were few clubs in the Premier League that wouldn’t have welcomed him as their manager. There was a time not so long ago when he was the overwhelming favourite to replace Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
There is a guy at Sunderland right now who looks like O’Neill, albeit with a few more worry lines on his forehead, but it’s not him. It can’t be.
Maybe Dr Evil has stolen his mojo because, like Austin in the movie, he has lost all of his powers.
There seems to be little passion left in the 2013 version of O’Neill. His quotes recently have been from a man who doesn’t believe in his players and is unsure of what to do to sort out the mess he finds himself in.
His wicked humour has deserted him. After the 1-1 draw with Norwich on Sunday, another appalling home performance, he managed a few paragraphs of quotes with no real explanation as to why his team couldn’t beat ten men.
O’Neill looked awkward in front of the Press when in days gone the pack were left hanging on to his every word.
A mournful O’Neill spent his Friday pre-match Press conference talking down the team, claiming they lacked “real true ability” and that he always knew it would be a tough season.
This was a not too subtle suggestion that he wasn’t given enough money in the summer or January.
That’s true, but also his buys have been at patchy, and that’s being charitable. Louis Saha and James McFadden. Can anyone explain why wages were paid to two players well past their best and with dreadful injury records? Adam Johnson looked good coming on in the last ten minutes for Manchester City, but only in the vastly over-priced world of English football would he cost anywhere close to £10million.
There are better and cheaper wingers out there. It may sound harsh to judge Alfred N’Diaye, but does anyone really believe he is the man who can help take Sunderland forward? Danny Graham may come good, but it’s not happened for him so far. Where is the scouting? Where are Sunderland’s Hatem Ben Arfa, Michu, Christian Benteke? All top players bought at modest prices.
O’Neill is the manager and the buck stops with him, although he is looking for more help from Ellis Short.
The American is not one for giving too much away in public, but the word around the club is he’s more than a little reluctant to spend even more of his millions on Sunderland because, so far, he’s seen little return for his investment.
But O’Neill wants more money. That’s going to be difficult in the Championship and this now feels like a relegation season on Wearside. On current form, Sunderland are the worst team in the Premier League and they could hardly have picked a worse run-in over their final eight matches.
Next up is Manchester United, who are homing in on the title and still feel resentment for how they lost the league at the Stadium of Light last year. Then it’s away at Chelsea, who are going for the Champions League, next it’s St James’ Park, say no more about that, and then Everton – who need points for Europe – are the visitors. After that it’s fellow strugglers Aston Villa away, Stoke at home, Southampton who are fighting to stay up as well and at least score goals, and the final game of this season is at White Hart Lane against a Tottenham side who, chances are, will be trying to finish in the top four.
Only the permanently midtable Stoke have nothing really to play for.
If 40 points will be enough to see them safe, where are Sunderland going to find nine from in those fixtures?
And the most worrying things is the manager doesn’t seem to believe either.
It is my opinion that O’Neill’s time on Wearside is sadly coming to an end. He will definitely walk if Sunderland go down, but even if they stay up it doesn’t appear that Short is going to back his manager in the way the Irishman wants.
The fans are beginning to question O’Neill’s judgement with the accusation repeated on radio phone-ins and through blogs and social media that his tactics belong to days gone by.
Ten years ago last week, O’Neill masterminded Celtic beating Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield in the Uefa Cup, on the way to a final where they lost in extra-time to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
That was the peak of his managerial career. But a decade is millennia in football terms.
And a year is a decade. It’s 12 months since Sunderland could be considered a decent Premier League side. Things have gone from okay to average to poor, to now, where they have eight games to save themselves from relegation.
You can trace your way back to where it all started to go wrong. Since losing to Everton at the Stadium of Light in a FA Cup quarter-final replay last season, they have been dreadful.
From 38 Premier League matches, or to put it another way a whole season, they have taken just 36 points. They have won seven, drawn 15 and lost 16.
In the two cups the record is won twice, a draw and home defeats to Bolton and Middlesbrough, two Championships sides going nowhere this season. He won seven of his first nine games. He’s won nine from his next 44.
O’Neill used to be the master of man-management. He could inspire players to heights way beyond their abilities.
Sunderland’s players at this moment in time looked scared to shoot. This is not an O’Neill team and the man is not himself. Everyone can see that.
How this is all going to end remains unclear. But unless significant changes are made at that club, it isn’t going to end well. Nobody, least of all O’Neill, saw this coming.