Walking in to the main entrance at the Stadium of Light yesterday, Martin O'Neill passed a glass case displaying the battered trilby hat, fawn mackintosh and red tracksuit worn by the only Sunderland manager to have brought some first-class silverware to the Wearside club in the past 74 years. Clearly, the challenge of emulating Bob Stokoe and bringing some rare success to Sunderland is the motivation for O'Neill as he returns to the management game, 16 months after his abrupt departure from Aston Villa.
It is certainly not for the promise of riches to spend on rebuilding a stuttering side standing in 17th place in the Premier League – even a million or two for some patch-up work in the January transfer window. The big surprise as O'Neill was introduced to the media in a third-floor suite at the Stadium of Light yesterday was that he had elicited no transfer guarantees from Ellis Short, Sunderland's American chairman and owner, in agreeing to succeed Steve Bruce on a three-year contract.
"I have had discussions with the owner but none at all about transfer funds," the Northern Irishman said. "Nor did I ask."
It was widely perceived, of course, that O'Neill left Villa in August 2010 because he was unhappy with the money being made available to him by their American owner, Randy Lerner. "Today might not be the day for that discussion," he said, when asked about his departure from Villa Park. "I did not break a contract at Villa.
"I have only done that once in my career, at Norwich City. To my discredit, I was only at Norwich for six months. But I was at Wycombe for five years, Celtic for five years, Leicester for four and a half and Villa for four. I think that was perhaps the overall picture Mr Short looked at. Most of those football clubs that I was at did not have a fantastic amount of money to spend."
It seems unlikely that O'Neill will be given no money to spend next month but in the meantime, starting with Sunday's home game against Blackburn, the 59-year-old will rely on the management skills that effected a significant transformation at Wycombe, Leicester, Celtic and Villa. He will have a coaching team comprising Steve Walford, the one-time Sunderland goalkeeper Seamus McDonagh and Jim Henry but will work, initially at least, without an assistant manager, John Robertson – his long-time lieutenant – being unavailable at present for "personal reasons".
Having been a Sunderland supporter in his youth growing up in Northern Ireland – because Charlie Hurley, the club's totemic Irish centre-half of the 1960s, was his favourite player – O'Neill has an enduring affection for the club and patently a burning desire to succeed where so many managers have failed. Only one manager has taken the Wearside club into Europe – Stokoe, in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1973 – and none has managed to take them higher than seventh in the top flight in the past half a century.
"From a potential point of view, this club is fantastic," O'Neill said. "I think there is an energy about this club and very obviously a passion. I would consider it a major part of my job to reignite that passion. It's so exciting, I can hardly tell you. Not just because it happened to be my boyhood team but there's incredible passion around the place. They turn up in great numbers and I just want to be part of it. It feels very much like when I went to Celtic.
"You know there's a community, that you're in it. I always felt like that at Celtic and I get that feeling here. I'm sure it's here in abundance and I want to feel it."
In succumbing to the appeal of Wearside, and signing a long-term contract, O'Neill has naturally ruled himself out of the reckoning for the England manager's job, for which he was interviewed prior to Steve McClaren's appointment in 2006. "I don't think you hang around for jobs," he said. "This opportunity came and I wanted to grasp it. I had not one genuine thought of anything else.
"I had discussions with Niall Quinn way back in 2006 but at that stage my wife was recovering from illness and she still had things affected in London. They were very much preliminary discussions. They didn't go any further."
In taking the Sunderland manager's job, O'Neill has achieved the one ambition that eluded his boyhood hero. Hurley applied for the post in November 1972. The Sunderland board plumped for Stokoe instead. "I've just spoken to Charlie a couple of hours ago," O'Neill said. "He left... a good luck message. He said when he came his early days here were disastrous, but he got voted Sunderland's Player of the Century. It's not bad is it?"
Marvellous Martin: O'Neill's openers
* "Obviously we are in a little bit of trouble at the moment. We have been losing games and could have had a few more points on the board."
* "Confidence is not at its highest at the moment, it has ebbed away and I will try to address that."
* "I don't want to play too much on the boyhood hero thing as it will probably only give you a two-game grace. We are in the results business. I want to make it a success if I can. I felt I was ready to come back. I am ready."
* "Eric Black summed it up well after [Sunday's defeat at Wolves] when he said that type of performance, where we played well and gifted them some goals, was probably symptomatic of the season so far."
* "I know sometimes you look and you think, 'Does he look really excited?'. Let me tell you, I am, I am really excited about it."Reuse content