James Lawton: Taking the Short view – a decision somewhat on the wild side of rash

Martin O’Neill was everything you wanted in a manager

You might say it is just another statistic in the mass of them listed under the Premier League propensity for panic but this one demands an asterisk. And as it is placed against the name of Martin O'Neill make it a big one.

Sunderland's American owner Ellis Short, who has not been niggardly in his financial support of the club, will no doubt say that he has fired O'Neill for the same reason he disposed of Roy Keane and Steve Bruce.

It is that he had a large investment to protect and that in all of football no change of circumstances is more perilous than relegation from the Premier League. Not even, Short rather astoundingly seems to believe, the appointment of the ultimately volatile Paolo Di Canio.

However, in parting with O'Neill after just 16 months the serially frustrated owner has surely had his most convulsive moment. This time, as that asterisk must declare, he has parted with one of the most outstanding football men of his generation.

Yes, it is true there is no question that Sunderland's situation had become critical even before Manchester United's 1-0 victory pushed them to the lip of the drop zone, a fate that might just have been eased by the presence of O'Neill's key forward, the injured Steven Fletcher, in a more boisterous second-half performance. But what the American is saying is that O'Neill, with seven games left, is no longer the best available man to protect his club's status.

It is the American's money and his call but the briefest examination of O'Neill's record says it is an extremely big one. Big? It becomes huge as Di Canio's candidacy, in which some success at Swindon Town has to be balanced against a record of uncharted and often quite bizarre behaviour, carries him into O'Neill's old chair.

Indeed, if you do not believe that the Irishman has in the course of a few months lost all those qualities that for so long underpinned a career that always promised great distinction, there is reason to believe that the Sunderland decision is somewhat on the wild side of rash.

O'Neill inherited an embattled team at the Stadium of Light and he galvanised it, earning along the way a stream of tributes from the dressing room.

One of his most notable advocates was the Swedish midfielder Sebastian Larsson, who spoke of a man of great subtlety and wit, someone who could dig down and find new points of inspiration. If that capacity is still in any kind of working order, it might have carried a lot of value these next few weeks, when his former players will be facing not so much moments of truth but one continuous stream of serious investigation.

Another Larsson, the great Henrik, is on the record in even more glowing terms than his compatriot Seb. When Neil Lennon was leading his old club Celtic to glory this season against Barcelona – for whom Henrik Larsson produced a brilliant game-changing cameo in the 2006 Champions League final – the Swede said that his former team-mate's goal had to be to match the influence and the leadership of O'Neill.

"When I was at Celtic," said Larsson, "Martin O'Neill was everything you wanted in a coach and a manager. He could make you feel ready to compete with any team. If Neil Lennon can match that over a few years he will be doing brilliantly."

Short might mutter the word "history", and, in his own context, the ancient variety, but there is some irony in the fact that the sword stroke that might have brought the end of O'Neill's career was delivered by the septuagenarian Sir Alex Ferguson. The greatest regime in modern English football history was threatened when Ferguson, who had a record of impressively consistent club-building, most spectacularly at Aberdeen, before arriving at Old Trafford struggled for a while to make the big breakthrough.

At that point in the late 1980s Ferguson benefited from the support of Sir Bobby Charlton, who told his fellow United directors: "You cannot turn your back on a man of such quality. Where do you go if you do?"

Short, having taken the decision against which Charlton argued so passionately at Old Trafford, has apparently gone to Di Canio and a brand of charisma which some former associates have tended to liken to nitroglycerine.

Meanwhile, there has to be a poignant sense that O'Neill at 61, for whom Sunderland and Celtic were the clubs of his boyhood devotion, might have to settle for a fine and frequently inspiring career rather than the great one which seemed to be unfolding in his commanding days in Glasgow.

He went there with an unblemished record of success, first at Wycombe, which might be said to be his Di Canio phase, albeit a hugely more constrained one, then at Leicester, which he turned into a formidable Premier League team and League Cup winners.

Feeding openly on the influence of his old mentor, Brian Clough, with whom he won the league title and the European Cup, he was unlucky at Celtic not to beat Jose Mourinho's Porto in the 2003 Uefa Cup final in Seville.

O'Neill's teams have never played purist football but it has been marked by intensity and a certain degree of craft. We saw it work again at Aston Villa before another American owner, Randy Lerner, and O'Neill disagreed over a new policy of strict financial restraint.

For a while many earmarked him for the Old Trafford succession, but that was before Ferguson made it clear he intended to manage for ever, and when he beat a string of top teams, including Liverpool and Barcelona, in his Celtic days, Anfield also seemed to beckon. There was certainly a Shanklyesque passion and quirkiness. He knew the most important secret of the game, it seemed: he knew how to get players of the quality of Henrik Larsson to produce consistently the best of themselves.

Yet football, like life, is not always seamless, whatever the level of your talent. The serious illness of O'Neill's wife, Geraldine, eight years ago demanded a period away from the trenches.

It also, perhaps, provides the kind of perspective which might have been necessary when he first heard that Paolo Di Canio was the favourite to take his job.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Sport
Harry Kane
premier leagueLive minute-by-minute coverage
News
The letter, purported to be from the 1970s, offered a message of gender equality to parents

When it comes to promoting equality of the sexes, we tend to think that we’ve come a long way in the past 40 years.

News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin