Captain's Blog: MythBuster O'Neill Proves His Pragmatism

Mark Thompson

Martin O'Neill's so-called rigid transfer policy has long been a stick with which many have sought to beat him, but the imaginative targets so far this month suggest that what many have labeled predictability might actually be pragmatism instead.

The penchant of fans to judge purely upon reputation is, for me, one of the most fundamentally irritating things about the modern game.

What is more, that irritation tends to be only compounded by the side-serving of hypocrisy. Many of us do it ourselves. How often do we lament a soft Lee Cattermole booking only to then condemn Luis Suarez of cheating purely on the basis of conjecture? In fact, I do it myself without really realising, and that only serves to irritate me even more.

In terms of management, few perhaps are more defined by reputation than Martin O'Neill. Some of it is deserved, of course. His teams have never played the most technical of football and, despite hailing the brilliance of Barcelona when he arrived at Sunderland after an 18-month sabbatical, they almost certainly never will.

It would also be fair to say that much of his reputation is not deserved though. For someone who has generally had reasonably long terms at clubs, his reputation for being an easily-ruffled quitter is quite extraordinary, for example.

There is one particular set of myths, however, that he seems to be going about disproving this January with such panache you'd almost think he is trying to make a deliberate point - those that relate to his transfer habits. Ask just about anyone to describe Martin O'Neill's recruitment policy and they'll likely tell you all about how he doesn't buy from abroad, he doesn't buy players who lack Premier League experience, and he doesn't even bother with bargain hunting at all.

Yet the players most predominantly linked with commanding the Sunderland manager's gaze so far this month are an obscure Hungarian centre back playing in Belguim and an even obscurer French midfielder playing in Turkey. It hardly screams 'archetypal O'Neill'.

Perhaps O'Neill has decided to change his methods, though that surely is unlikely given how well they have served him and how filled with disdain he appeared recently towards a BBC reporter who asked him about self-doubt. It is much more likely that, actually, the reputation was unwarranted in the first place.

Don't get me wrong here. I am not somehow suggesting that we re-write history, although there are those who would seemingly have you forget a fairly respectable list of very sound imports including the likes of Theo Zagorakis, Stiliyian Petrov (for Villa), John Carew, Joos Valgaeren, and Bobo Balde. I am merely saying that perhaps it is time to re-examine how we interpret it.

At Aston Villa, backed with Randy Lerner's almost reckless financial abandon, O'Neill could indulge himself. He could afford be as picky as he wanted. What followed simply demonstrated what he preferred in an ideal world rather than any genuine inflexibility. If you can afford to be picky, then why shouldn't you be?

It was a similar situation at Celtic. Given their position in Scottish football, O'Neill could hand pick the best domestic talent almost at his leisure, and did so to good effect with the likes of Didier Agathe, Momo Sylla, and Ulrik Laursen. He was also well-positioned to attract some big names that he knew well from the English leagues.

But at Sunderland he faces a very different challenge. One so different, in fact, that any old rule-book that may have been written on him should have really been thrown away the moment he was appointed. We know from all too familiar experience that the pond the Black Cats fish in can be quite annoyingly shallow. When such illustrious names as Chris Baird, Matthew Taylor, and David Nugent have turned your club down in the past on account of geography, a buy British policy isn't something you want to bet your career on.

What O'Neill is really proving with all this is actually his pragmatism. At Leicester he raided the lower leagues to very good effect, at Celtic he took advantage of their stature to siphon off the best the rest of the SPL had to offer, and at Villa he took advantage of Lerner's riches to attract established names. Now, at Sunderland, he seems to be chasing big money buys he knows can settle as well as bargain hunting abroad.

Four very different clubs in four very different situations, and now four very different transfer policies. Three of them have worked so far to very good effect. Let's hope he completes the set on Wearside.

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