Ever since taking his first assured steps up the slippery slope of football management at Grantham Town, Martin O'Neill has been a man in demand. In February 2006, for instance, he found himself the bookmakers' favourite as next man in for no fewer than three jobs of the highest profile: England, Newcastle and Manchester United. Steve McClaren would eventually take the first, Glenn Roeder the second, while the third remains stubbornly unvacated.
The odds-layers could easily have made it four, as within a month Sunderland, the Ulster Catholic's joint boyhood favourites with Celtic, sacked Mick McCarthy. That summer, O'Neill turned down entreaties from the club's new chairman, Niall Quinn, but now the time is right at last. Yesterday he was confirmed as manager on a three-year contract, so ending his 16-month sabbatical from football. "It's a very nice feeling to be back in football and to be the manager of Sunderland," he said. "It's a big moment for me. I hope I can help Sunderland to a very successful period. That's what I've come for and that's my driving ambition."
The qualities O'Neill has brought to all seven of his previous clubs are much coveted: bringing the best out of players; finding a style that suits them; man-management that took the best, but only the best, from his greatest influence, Brian Clough; natural intelligence and eloquence; and a passion evident in his touchline antics. Together they have produced the most important factors for any manager, namely winning matches and leaving a team in better shape than he found it.
Highly personable, he will appeal to supporters and the media in an area of two local radio stations, two evening newspapers and one daily, plus all the national papers; a formidable lobby who were criticised only last week by Sir Alex Ferguson for exerting too much influence.
O'Neill's affection for Sunderland is more than an urban myth, as he has made clear. "I supported them as a kid and Charlie Hurley was my hero," he said, recalling how Hurley missed a penalty in the Boxing Day match of 1962 when Clough's playing career was effectively ended, and how Chelsea pipped Sunderland for promotion on the last day of that season.
Hurley, the rugged old Irish centre-half who was voted the club's player of the century, believes Sunderland have now made the right choice. "I like Martin's attitude to the game. Having been a manager myself [at Reading], I know you've got to be strong and create the feeling of who is the boss. He's got a way of doing that and players will have to follow it. I'm sorry for Steve Bruce but the main thing now is to get Sunderland in the top half before the end of the season. And I think Martin O'Neill has got the balls to do it."
The impression of a slightly unconventional maverick – who walked out on a club five days before the start of a new season, as O'Neill did at Villa – tends to worry hardened professionals, and it was interesting that a majority of local pundits made Mark Hughes their favoured choice. Chris Waddle, who played for Newcastle and briefly for Sunderland, was one of them, and he counsels against the exaggerated expectations that have afflicted both clubs down the years.
"The main thing is just to keep Sunderland as a Premier League team," Waddle said. "If people think they should be challenging for Champions' League, they're living in cuckoo land. The chairman's very wealthy and I'm sure Martin would tell him the priority is two strikers, and then it's up to Martin to use his name and his patter to lure them to the club."
Last season Sunderland scored only 45 goals, worse than seven of the teams below them. There has to be a modicum of sympathy for Bruce, who lost so many loan players, and strikers in particular, that he made 11 new signings in the summer. But it was still a huge blow when Asamoah Gyan, last season's top scorer, left for the UAE on a season-long loan in September.
Waddle says of the remaining strikers: "[Nicklas] Bendtner's scoring record is not phenomenal, Connor Wickham is still learning his trade and the lad from Korea [Ji Dong-Won] is not proven. Gyan saw the pound signs flashing in his eyes and I think what he did was as bad as [Carlos] Tevez. They're a hard-working and very honest team but you need peopleto put the ball in the net. It's hard to attract players to the North-east unless you're paying wages that they're not basically worth."
Finance, and specifically a failure to sign Scott Parker from West Ham, is the issue which caused O'Neill to fall out with Villa, where wages were running at 88 per cent of turnover and the annual loss of £37.4m dwarfed even Sunderland's regular £27m. He will have asked about sums available to spend in January and the reply clearly did not deter him, even though Bruce was not allowed to spend the money received from Villa for DarrenBent or to buy Charles N'Zogbia when he needed a left-sided midfielder.His spending was financed by the sale of Jordan Henderson to Liverpool, and Quinn admitted that a factor in allowing Gyan to leave for a record loan fee of £6m was "theobvious economic benefit to our club".
It will come in handy now there is the additional expense of compensation payments to Bruce and other coaches forced out as "Team O'Neill" – his former Forest team-mate John Robertson and Steve Walford – are reassembled. But optimism is in the air again in an economically downtrodden area. Four short months ago, Bruce stood at the side of the pitch after a pre-season friendly against York City and talked about "a real feelgood factor round the town". That feeling has now returned. Just not in the way he would have wanted it.
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