Martin O'Neill's insistence during his unveiling as Sunderland manager that he had not mentioned a possible January transfer budget with Ellis Short, the club owner and chairman, before accepting the position, surprised many. It appeared either brave or naïve; Sunderland, after all, had won one of their previous eight games before Steve Bruce's dismissal. There were calls for further investment. Relegation was becoming a real issue.
Those fears seem alarmist now. On Tuesday night at the DW Stadium, O'Neill led his new charges to their fourth victory in six games. They also moved into the Premier League top10 for the first time this season. How has O'Neill done it?
Clean slate Lee Cattermole's fresh start
O'Neill could have wiped his hands of Lee Cattermole; instead he has wiped the slate clean. Within seconds of Sunday's astonishing victory against Manchester City, O'Neill was on the pitch with his arm around his inspirational captain. Cattermole had felt the world was against him in the closing stages of Bruce's reign. Now, it looks as if a weight is lifting off his shoulders. This is a quiet Sunderland team and it has needed the former Middlesbrough and Wigan midfielder at his boisterous (and controlled) best.
O'Neill, by not turning on Cattermole after he was arrested on suspicion of damaging cars in Newcastle, has invigorated a player who looked lost. Without the bookings, Cattermole was a player who caught Liverpool's eye two summers ago. O'Neill seems to have remembered that.
Answers inside Dipping into reserves
By the end for Bruce, the round holes were getting bigger and the square pegs were dropping through. Moving players into different positions no longer appeared to be working, and O'Neill has found more in reserve. Since pitching up three days into his reign at a rain-soaked Eppleton CW ground to see his second XI beat Manchester United 6-3, he has pulled rabbits from unlikely hats. Centre-half Matthew Kilgallon is resurrecting his career, making his first start for Sunderland in 20 months at Wigan (after loan spells at Middlesbrough and Doncaster).
Jack Colback has moved seamlessly to left-back, Craig Gardner to right-back and James McClean has been a revelation since his debut as a substitute against Blackburn. O'Neill promised to look within first for answers. He has found some.
One of us Managing the club you love
O'Neill lifted up his tracksuit bottom trouser leg after he took over at the Stadium of Light to prove he does not have a Sunderland badge tattooed above his ankle, but that it was part of Wearside folklore is hugely significant. O'Neill, as has been well chronicled, was a Sunderland fan as a child because of his adoration for Charlie Hurley, the big Irish central defender. Sunderland fans knew all about it long before he took over. They feel he is one of them.
O'Neill gave the reason (there may be others) for the non-tattoo as his hatred of needles. It always needled with Sunderland fans – unfairly – that his predecessor was from north of the river Tyne and had supported Newcastle as a boy. Bruce suffered from that sharp rivalry.
Mr Motivator Players use his energy
"The players don't feel they can be beaten at the moment," said O'Neill. "I'm delighted with the spirit of the team. They feed off each other."
The manager is calling on every ounce of commitment from his players and he rewards it with heady praise. He constantly talks of energy and courage. There has been no criticism or negativity from the moment he walked in, the situation being too delicate for that. The players have bought into his energy, huddling around him in freezing training sessions to listen to his words. They are told they are world-beaters and it has produced staggering results.
McClean, though signed by Bruce in the summer, had not played before O'Neill's arrival. "He's lifted everyone around the club," McClean said. "He's given us all a new lease of life, so it's huge credit to him. He's a remarkable manager."
Reputation A man held in high esteem
Sir Bobby Charlton spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson in i in a tribute for the Manchester United manager's 70th birthday on Saturday. He added that O'Neill's name had been mentioned as a possible replacement when Ferguson first planned to retire.
It is easy to forget the esteem in which O'Neill has been held during his managerial career. England and Old Trafford were always seen as possible future posts; that is the calibre of manager Sunderland found after a 16-month exile.
The break has recharged O'Neill. He is not talking (or arguing) about money. Instead he has refocused his main managerial skills – his enthusiasm, his motivation and man-management – and fans are realising that the club's signing of the season may be the man in the dugout.Reuse content