Martin O'Neill: Messiah?

Nothing divides like success, as Martin O'Neill and Arsène Wenger can testify. Today both chase FA Cup success from very different perspectives

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill is eulogising, once more. "I'm loving it here," he says. "The club is fantastic, it really is. People are desperate to do really well. There is a keenness here, not desperation, just an eagerness to do well, and you would love to be successful, obviously for yourself, but you'd like to do well for the people here as well."

Click here to read 'Arsène Wenger: Pariah?'

It is important to remember that Premier League managers can be this happy. Honeymoon period or not, with 25 years' experience O'Neill knows that it is always advisable to make the most of the moment.

He admits that 15 months out of the sack race have done him the world of good. "It is a very, very good point. I have probably missed the game more than I realised when I was out of it. I have come here to a real, proper footballing club, regardless of whether it was your boyhood team or anything like that.That lasts two minutes. I'm enjoying allthe aspects of it, in terms of management, I think working with players tends to keep you young as well. You're seeing younger players all the time, you're looking at players and you're checking their birth certificates and you go, 'Hold on, wait a wee minute! That player is really, really young.'

"Also, the thing you realise now is you can't boast about your own achievements, nobody remembers them. Nobody has even heard of the European Cup! You tell them the Champions' League used to be the European Cup and they're like, 'Did it?' That is incredible.

"You tell the players this and when you go out and the ball comes to you and it's been playing round the park and you think you're going to control it and you miss it and they go, 'He never played'. All those things taken into consideration, it has been great."

The reintroduction of O'Neill to management has so far been buried in smiles. Six wins from nine games have not hurt, but beyond the results has been an injection of energy that not even the owner, Ellis Short, and the former chairman Niall Quinn could have envisaged.

Behind the scenes has been fascinating. There was a hush-hush fine for the club captain, Lee Cattermole, for missing training – he was stuck in Scotland – and the words about his disciplinary record were not minced.

But then there was the symbolic embrace for his captain after Sunderland beat Manchester City. There have been endless words in Cattermole's ear about how great he is doing.

In training, O'Neill stands on the sidelines and allows Steve Walford to coach, but when he calls a huddle everyone listens. He tells the players they are the best, and the transformation has been staggering.

"The new manager has come in and been a breath of fresh air," said the Irish winger James McClean. "He has given the lads a lot of confidence by being upbeat. It has rubbed off on the players. Training has been different as every manager has their own style, but there have not been big changes.

"You could see what it meant to the fans to have Martin O'Neill. His managerial record speaks for itself. When you are a player like myself coming through the ranks, it gives you a confidence boost when there is someone like him in charge."

The togetherness forged by having a Sunderland supporter at the helm has proved crucial. As Steve Bruce reflected four days before his dismissal, he could not alter where he was born – north of the River Tyne. It was an immovable obstacle. Sunderland, as proven by O'Neill's exuberance, have unity. A North-east derby against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fourth round is perceived to have far less potential pitfalls than as recently as two months ago.

"I have always retained a natural enthusiasm for the game," O'Neill adds. "The game has been very kind to me, both as a player and as a manager. To be well paid for a job like this is something I can't forget. At the time when I was a player, when you weren't well paid, it didn't really matter.

"But management is not this easy, absolutely not. We are going to hit a barren spell and you want to know where the next result is coming from. I am delighted obviously to get this start. Just getting these couple of wins have given us that wee bit of respite.

"I still believe that we would be going into this Middlesbrough game as strong as we possibly could, but who knows if we had not had extra points on the board? It's all right me saying this right now, but at this minute I'm delighted with the team and what they have done."

Five things O'Neill has done right...

He has got inside his players' heads

There have been cuddles, motivational words in their ears and O'Neill leaping around the dressing room after victories. O'Neill has told his players he thinks they are the greatest in the world. And they are listening.

He is Mr Smiley

Hard to imagine that O'Neill left Villa with unhappiness clearly hanging in the air. Fifteen months away has fully recharged his batteries. O'Neill is constantly smiling and cracking what he himself calls "crap jokes", but it has lightened the mood dramatically.

He's a Sunderland fan

Steve Bruce was always weighed down by his Newcastle heritage. O'Neill supported Sunderland and understandably reminds fans of that. But they do not actually need the reminder; they know who O'Neill supported as a child. Result? Unity.

He has something in reserve

Refreshingly, O'Neill got into his squad to find answers rather than getting out the chequebook. He unearthed James McClean (a Steve Bruce signing) and stuck him on the left with great results. He has also got players such as David Vaughan playing, while the likes of Jack Colback have shown versatility.

He has got Cattermole purring

Getting Lee Cattermole back to his best has been crucial. O'Neill was hard on his underperforming captain when he arrived, but has cajoled the very best out of their key midfielder.