'Martin O'Neill should have been the 'one'' That's something I've heard quite a lot since the Northern Irishman's departure from Sunderland in March, and indeed a few months into his managerial reign, when he led his new team to a terrific start, steering them well clear of relegation, it looked like he really was the 'chosen one' that had been forseen by the prophetic scripture carved into the pillars of Penshaw Monument. He'd had a history of success wherever he'd been, including at clubs of a similar position to Sunderland's, he was a boyhood fan of the club, and he also played for many years under Brian Clough, a man who was routinely courted by supporters during the 1970's and 80's.
The Clough link is vital here, and is perhaps the reason why O'Neill's future success at the club was talked about in terms of destiny. A prolific goalscorer for the club as a player, Wearside was said to still have a place in Clough's heart, and with the Sunderland of the 70's and 80's bouncing between Division One and Division Two, too good for one, but never quite good enough to establish themselves in the other, Clough was the man every supporter wanted to lead the club to it's full potential.
As it is, Clough never took charge, and a string of underwhelming managers continued the streak, until a reputation as a 'yo-yo' club was firmly established. With O'Neill, it felt like the club had found 'their Clough' at last. As it is, despite a promising start, he turned out not the be the man Sunderland were looking for. The football was dire, and it looked like were were heading to the Championship, yet despite this, some are questioning whether Ellis Short was too hasty to get rid of the bouncy, Artie Ziff look-a-like.
It's understandable that many fans would think this, given Sunderland's current troubles, and with O'Neill back in the news after being handed the Republic of Ireland national team job. The team's current situation is akin to leaving your partner, only to find yourself a few months later lying on you settee, forcing Walker's Sensations into your mouth while watching a repeat of Dinner Date on ITV2. Meanwhile your ex has moved onto someone else. Their new lover isn't necessarily the most attractive one in the world, but it's enough to make you look at the shell of a human being you've become and make you question whether you've made a mistake there.
However, Sunderland got rid of Martin O'Neill for a very good reason. Perhaps the best reason to get rid of a football manager. He wasn't very good at managing the football team he had been designated. Sacked after an 8-game winless run, the side were sleep-walking towards relegation, producing some of the most dire, antiquated, joyless play ever seen on the North-East coast. Results during this period included defeats to awful QPR and Reading sides, and the turgid 1-1 draw at home Norwich who, despite being a man down for most of the game, looked the most likely to come out with a win.
Then there was the fitness issue. O'Neill hit the headlines last week after criticising his successor Paolo Di Canio, taking exception to the Italian's charge that the team he inherited was unfit. Though Di Canio was wrong about many things, he was right about the side's lack of physical fitness. The players looks extremely fatigued at times, and question marks must be raised over O'Neill's training methods and match preparation.
To be fair, pretty much all fans are completely aware that things weren't great under O'Neill, but some are forgetting just how bad it was, and now ask, with the club in the situation they're currently in, whether we would have been better off giving him more time to turn things around. Surely we wouldn't be in quite as bad shape if we'd kept with O'Neill, rather than pursuing the new system under a Director of Football, one the new Ireland manager would never have been able to work under?
This argument rests on the idea that O'Neill would've gotten the points required to keep us up. The problem is, he looked so out of fresh ideas, that it's extremely unlikely he would have turned things around. The team lacked any fight, and perhaps most worryingly, it looked like O'Neill did too. Towards the end, it looked from post-match interviews like he'd given up hope. And even if he found some spirit out of nowhere and steered us to safety again, and been given full control of transfers over the summer, his dubious record in the market suggests the club would have carried on in mediocrity.
Sunderland made the correct decision to get rid of O'Neill when they did. The problem is most of the decisions made after that were catastrophically terrible, and that's why the club have found themselves in the situation they are. The first was to appoint 'managerial charlatan' Di Canio whose initially positive impact was quickly negated by his psychopathic tendencies. And while I think the new model Short is implementing is the right route to go down if the club are to become self-sufficient and competitive in the long term, it's clear mistakes have been made behind the scenes too.
However, improvements are starting to be made under Gus Poyet, and given the way the club were headed under O'Neill, it's hard to imagine we'd be in a healthier state under him than under the current regime. He was never 'our Clough'. Instead O'Neill was representative of everything that was wrong with Sunderland over the past few years; years that were characterised by overspending, a lack of a long-term plan, and a lack of growth. We shouldn't pine for him based on what we thought he would be.