One day we can be like Barça, claims O'Neill

 

It is a proud record, and one he is determined to protect – from the gutsy 1-1 draw fought out by Wycombe at Merthyr Tydfil 21 years ago, to a share of the spoils at the Emirates Stadium when Aston Villa went 11 games unbeaten at the start of the season in 2006 – in a long and distinguished career in management, Martin O’Neill remains unbeaten in his first game in charge at all of his senior clubs.

If history is to be believed, it would appear the best hope for Blackburn Rovers, who visit the Stadium of Light tomorrow for an encounter that could well leave the losers in the bottom three, is to return across the Pennines with a point.

O'Neill, 59, is too long in the footballing tooth to draw too much comfort from past events on his return to the Premier League, 16 months after leaving Aston Villa. With the side he inherited from Steve Bruce just a point and a place above the bottom three, at least it is not the toughest of acts to follow. The Irishman said: "Looking from the outside at the start of the season, I thought that the players Sunderland had brought in would add that bit of stability. So yes, I'd say I'm surprised at some of the subsequent results."

Not that he is planning root-and-branch changes to face a Blackburn side without a win against the Wearside club in their last six attempts. He is yet to formulate his starting XI, waiting for several key performers to prove their fitness, and neither has he at this stage chosen a stand-in skipper for the suspended Lee Cattermole.

"What have I actually been doing, then?" The rhetorical question is posed with an endearing mix of humour and self-deprecation. "I've played Sunday over in my mind about 15 times, and so far we've won every game," O'Neill said. "I've thought about lots of different scenarios, but every time we end up winning."

Any new manager might be best advised not to map out a future that involves attempts to replicate the kind of stellar football played by the current European Champions, Barcelona. But then again, O'Neill can never be accused of following conventional wisdom. "I touched on it the other day," he said. "I always come back to the way Barcelona play, and I think teams look to that. It's a long way in the future, but you'd love to keep that in the back of your mind, that you could eventually have a team that could come out and play like that."

He at least retains the self-awareness to add: "Over the course of time, people will probably throw that back at me."

Ever the pragmatist, he added: "Over the last couple of years, Arsenal have been very easy on the eye, and it'd be lovely to play a brand of football that would excite the crowd. We have to balance that with a need to win football matches. I suppose at the moment pragmatism has to be the order of the day. We have to win games."

So after his lengthy managerial hiatus, surely he harbours certain doubts. Has the game moved on and left him, even in such a relatively short space of time? He said: "I was thinking about how the game might have evolved during my time away, and the answer is that I probably don't know.

"I watched a lot of football on TV, but it's not the same. Last Sunday's game at Wolves was a real eye-opener for me. The previous week, I'd taken my daughter to watch Arsenal against Fulham. After three or four minutes, she said: 'Isn't it great to watch a football game where there's no pressure?' Little did she realise that a fortnight later, she'd be throwing herself back into it again. That might tell you the difference, I'm watching now like a manager again, as opposed to watching for pure enjoyment."

At a club where false dawns have become depressingly familiar, the rewards – and no doubt adulation – for the manager to finally harness the undoubted potential will be substantial. But they will have to be earned. "A couple of young lads came up to me looking for autographs as I was coming out of the [midweek] reserves game," O'Neill said. "Then an older man, probably about my age, shouted: 'You need to win some games, son'. Son? I think I was older than him. But I got what he was saying immediately."

O'Neill openers Martin's first games

* Martin O'Neill has never lost his first match after taking over a new club

Wycombe Wanderers

10 Feb 1990: Merthyr (a) Drew 1-1

Norwich City

13 Aug 1995: Luton (a) Won 3-1

Leicester City

23 Dec 1995: Grimsby (a) Drew 2-2

Celtic

30 July 2000: Dundee U (a) Won 2-1

Aston Villa

19 Aug 2006: Arsenal (a) Drew 1-1

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