Martin O'Neill pays for failure to create history at Sunderland
He had pedigree, was a Sunderland fan and had a point to prove. The Ulsterman arrived at the Stadium of Light as the dream ticket but could not revive the club
On a wall leading to the manager's office at the Academy of Light — Sunderland's grandiosely name training centre — is a picture of Jimmy Montgomery, the goalkeeper famed for his double save in the 1973 FA Cup final against Leeds, being hugged by his manager that day, Bob Stokoe.
Martin O'Neill watched that piece of giant-killing cup history — Leeds were in the First Division, Sunderland in the Second — in his new house with a "crippling mortgage" in Nottingham with his brother.
He was already a Sunderland supporter, having begun listening to their exploits as a 12-year-old on an old radio, when Charlie Hurley was the king of Roker Park.
"Absolutely I got drawn into the occasion," O'Neill told me last February. "I remember it as if it was yesterday. Do I remember that particular moment, the double save? I do, because I've seen it that often! It was nail-biting. You always felt Leeds were capable of scoring a goal but not until the final moment of the game did you really believe it had happened. I was as delighted as anybody."
Last February. It feels a lifetime ago but management in the North-east runs in dog years, or certainly seems to.
Last February O'Neill could do no wrong. He had inherited a team in serious trouble. Sunderland had finished 10th in the previous campaign, but the loss of Darren Bent in the January transfer window had been more damaging than anyone could have imagined, and an emerging talent in the on-loan forward Danny Welbeck had returned to Manchester United.
O'Neill's predecessor, Steve Bruce, had the problem of being born north of the Tyne and brought up a Newcastle fan. When his team lost at home to Wigan, the vitriol fell from every corner of the ground. Ellis Short acted.
O'Neill was the dream ticket. He had pedigree, was a Sunderland supporter and had a point to prove after his departure at Aston Villa when the boardroom and the managerial team had had enough of each other. Three sixth-placed finishes in the Premier League were O'Neill's freshest CV entries. He took the job, watching Sunderland lose at Wolves on December 4 after his appointment.
From there, Sunderland for once started to make sense. In his first game in charge at the Stadium of Light he brought on the untested James McClean with his new side trailing to Blackburn Rovers. McClean shone, Sunderland conjured up a victory. O'Neill was on his way. In the next 13 games they lost twice, to Tottenham and Chelsea. There was a famous, televised victory at the death over future champions Manchester City. Then came victory against Arsenal in the FA Cup. Sunderland were one win away from Wembley, and Montgomery and 1973 were coming to life once more.
Sunderland drew at Everton in the quarter-final of the FA Cup. In the replay, at the Stadium of Light, they were blown away. O'Neill has never won the FA Cup, either as a player or as a manager. He looked crestfallen. His team has not recovered. They did not win any of the remaining eight league games of the season.
With that form, O'Neill's resolve to strengthen his squad was hardened. Short wanted quality not quantity. He had grown weary at the numbers signed by Roy Keane and then Steve Bruce. But O'Neill wanted the same, just more so. He signed Steven Fletcher for £12m and Adam Johnson for £10m and added a loan signing in Danny Rose and a free transfer in Carlos Cuellar. He wanted more. Short stood firm.
The campaign has been nothing but struggle. Sunderland were beaten by Middlesbrough in the League Cup and failed to beat 10-man Newcastle at home in the Premier League. The 'two games to save his job' story emerged earlier in the season. Short sought out the journalist responsible before a game to stress, in no uncertain terms, that it was not true.
Then there was a pick-up in results. Sunderland had hopes of a top 10 finish. Their best run of five wins in eight games was sandwiched by defeat and struggle. They are now bottom of the form table.
On Thursday, when facing the written media, he tried to be upbeat. O'Neill had been at a fans' forum the previous morning, before news broke that Fletcher, his top goalscorer, and Lee Cattermole, his captain, would not play again this season. "There is years of pent-up frustration that Sunderland have not won a trophy for 40 years," he said. "In fairness, our near neighbours [Newcastle], who are doing well in the Europa League, have not won anything for a long time. That could be a North-east pent up feeling. If that comes out in explosions of pent-up frustration then I understand it."
He had a valid point but it will be lost in time. The repeated failure adds only another burden to those who manage in the North-east. Big names continue to fail and to fall. Add to that Martin O'Neill. Another entry for the death march.
Steve McClaren Available again after leaving FC Twente in Holland last month.
Owen Coyle Highly regarded when he took Burnley into the Premier League but things did not work out at Bolton.
Roberto Di Matteo Out of work since leaving Chelsea in November, six months after guiding them to Champions' League success.
MARK HUGHES Reputation has been damaged by his unsuccessful 10-month stint at QPR.
Paolo Di Canio The controversial Italian proved his potential in management at Swindon.
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