Captain's Blog: Does O'Neill 'Progress' Warrant Sunderland Patience?

Clive Brunskill

'Progress' has replaced 'next level' as the buzzword at Sunderland. But are we in a position to judge it yet?

If there is one word that seems to act as the barometer for mood of Sunderland fans these days then it is ‘progress'. It seems we are all terribly forgiving so long as we are seeing clear evidence of the team moving in the right direction, no matter how slowly, and fairly disgruntled if we don't.

I am no different in that, of course. I hope for better - as is my fundamental right as a football fan - and the price of following modern football justifiably empowers fans to make clubs more accountable than ever before for the quality of what they produce.

With Steve Bruce it was simple. He arrived during the summer and there was a sustained spell of continuity upon which a judgement could be based. It was clinical, clean, and after wasting the Jordan Henderson money in the most careless of fashions, everyone was agreed that he had blown it and his time was up.

As far as Martin O'Neill is concerned, I am not sure we have that same luxury.

Don't get me wrong here - I am not exactly jumping out of my seat with joy at the results and football on offer right now. Any semblance of consistency has entirely eluded Sunderland for far longer than is probably acceptable. It has to change. We all know that, including the manager.

But how do you go about measuring the progress of a team under a manager who has not even completed a full season in charge yet? Which starting point to you take?

The team that finished in tenth position the season before it, even though it had been gutted of the likes of Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan, Steed Malbranque, Jordan Henderson, Danny Welbeck, and Nedum Onuoha? What a scandalous amount of talent to allow to slip through your fingers in one season. I digress.

Personally, I am not sure how that can be considered O'Neill's starting position.

Neither, though, am I convinced that last season's rescue operation which saw January's transfer kitty blown away by the cost of sacking Bruce and his staff can really be seen as the start of the O'Neill journey. His remit was more about stopping the club hurtling towards the edge of a cliff rather than effecting any long-term change of destination, and the new-manager bounce has skewered many a season before.

There are some that will seek to dismiss this as me making excuses for O'Neill and the like, but ultimately until a baseline reading can be taken - that is to say a full season of football played by a team that is at the very least partially of his design - I just don't know how we can even begin to make any kind of a fair judgement regarding the progress that is or is not being made.

One interesting point of comparison, though, can be found by examining O'Neill's first full season in charge of Aston Villa. There is a school of thought that he strolled into Villa Park, waved a magic wand, and instantly transformed The Villains into a consistent top six Premier League force.

Furthermore, the fact that he hasn't done the same at Sunderland is being used to suggest that he has somehow lost his magic, fallen out of touch with the modern game, and essentially outlived his usefulness whilst fresh and modern managers like Michael Laudrup and Steve Clarke take the plaudits.

Actually, such an assertion is flawed from the start. During O'Neill's first full season at Aston Villa, they were a largely inconsistent midtable team who failed to inspire, struggled to score goals, and were generally happier being hard to beat than opening themselves up to try and force games.

At this stage of that season, Aston Villa were in 13th place with 7 wins to their name (the same as Sunderland have now) and had actually scored one less goal than the 28 his side has this term. The similarities are absolutely striking. In fact, it all seems eerily familiar.

It's also notable that at that stage Villa were just one point better off than they were in the previous season. I dare say their fans were struggling to see much enjoyment and progress either at that point.

It is impossible to know if O'Neill can repeat what followed that opening season here on Wearside, but those insistent that the dour nature of his football of late is indicative of what we can expect to follow may want to have a rethink. During his second full season, Villa scored more goals than they have managed in any other Premier League season, 71 - more than both Chelsea and Spurs amassed last season.

Ultimately, we will all decide for ourselves whether or not Sunderland are making any progress under Martin O'Neill. Personally, I think it's far too early to be drawing any conclusions, but it's definitely worth sticking out the current frustrations to find out for sure.

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