O'Neill invokes the spirit of Clough in adversity
Manager calls on Sunderland to stick together in tradition of his mentor
"It sounds crazy," says Martin O'Neill quietly, "but he had a year and a half at Nottingham Forest where he did not improve the team one jot, not a jot, not a jot."
O'Neill is talking about Brian Clough. On Thursday, Clough, Bob Paisley and Sir Alf Ramsey will be inducted into the League Managers' Association's Hall of Fame. O'Neill will say a few words about his mentor. It might be a few more, but then people never tire of stories about Brian Clough.
A reminder that Clough's foot sometimes went through the water as well is apposite right now. O'Neill has been at Sunderland for less than 12 months, and only the past few weeks, despite the length of a bad run results-wise, has felt difficult; a period in which he has had to forcibly remind people of his achievements, and his desire.
"In fact we may even have gone backwards [at Forest], though Cloughie would never have told you that," O'Neill continues. "That is true. We didn't improve. He came in January and we were a mid-table side until Peter Taylor joined. There was renewed vigour. Not that Brian Clough wasn't excellent on his own, of course he was."
And then the point. The advice that Clough gave his players and his football club whenever it got tough, as it is currently for O'Neill and Sunderland. "We had plenty of bad times during the course of that time and he would say, 'Stick in together, renew your effort, pull in and get even stronger'.
"He'd obviously said this a few times at Derby County, because John McGovern and Archie Gemmill said it was a favourite phrase of his in tough times. Lesser managers than him would have said it, but when he said it you felt there was something behind it.
He adds: "Absolutely I have said that." It feels as if O'Neill, naturally reflective, has been soul-searching. Sunderland have won once in their past 17 games, but the run straddles two seasons. These are new ways of finding destructive statistics. It adds to a sense of pressure as he takes his side to Fulham today.
"Did I see any of this coming? Yes," he says. "It [the job now] is that difficult. It is more difficult now than possibly ever before. Some of the teams over the last couple of seasons are getting stronger.
"Look at Tottenham Hotspur, they have a squad to die for and they're vying for the top four. Everton are getting stronger. They have got 20 players and David Moyes can change them around and they are still very strong.
"We're not at that stage yet, but we will get there, we will get there, honestly. I want to do well at the football club. I genuinely want to do really well at the football club. It is important because of the club it is, and we will, we will.
"It will be slow. It won't be a decade because I won't get the time, but by the same token we will get there, honestly. That is my genuine view. I have a timescale, I have a contract. If I have not lifted the side into our proper position I will move over, absolutely.
"It makes me laugh, [the rumours] that I don't go on the training ground. I am there all the time. I have been for years. It's a myth that has grown up here that I turn up only for the matches. I'm there. What I do is allow my coaches to coach. There is no more important time to be there than when you're having a tough time.
"In terms of experience, we have a distance to go. This time last year, when I arrived at the football club, confidence was low. It was bruised but not broken. We now find ourselves scrapping again but we're not the only team. If we win a game or two, that confidence to do the things you know you're capable of doing will come flooding back.
"Of course this is a major test, yes. Of course it is a test, absolutely. Now we are trying to push on and it is every bit as difficult. We have signed two players for money and I think [Steven] Fletcher has shown what he is capable of doing and [Adam] Johnson will come through. I need other players who are at the football club to step up."
Fulham v Sunderland is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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