Our away support is notoriously noisy and supportive, but as Sunderland meekly surrendered to a gutless 3-1 defeat at the Premier League's bottom club, QPR on Saturday, hostility towards our manager began to swell on a scale I've not witnessed yet this season. First half chants of "Martin O'Neill's red and white" army soon faded as the second half progressed at Loftus Road. As anger grew with the performance, the ire of fans was directed at players and manager alike. Significant numbers - though it must be said they were individual voices rather than en masse chants - could be heard vociferously protesting against the manager and his decisions. None of this was a surprise, given the nature of the performance, but encouragingly it did not lead to any form of "O'Neill out" protest.
That kind of reaction was saved for the internet, where calls for the Northern Irishman to go were tweeted and posted in the aftermath of the defeat at QPR. My patience had been tested by what was a truly abject game, but to sack the manager now - which some fans were clearly in favour of - would be tantamount to footballing suicide. Indeed, in the wake of their defeat to Villa , Reading have made a monumental error by sacking Brian McDermott. There are countless examples of clubs who have made this sort of late, desperate decision, only to subsequently witness their fortunes at best remain the same, or more typically take a turn for the worse.
It will be fascinating to see where Reading turn next. The general rule for clubs who sack managers at this stage of the season is the appointment of a short term, inexperienced quick fix. In our case, if O'Neill left, the decision would probably be to appoint a popular character from within the club. A long term option would most likely be unavailable and an easy way to appease an emotive crowd would be to install someone with strong connections to the club; a messianic figure if you like.
One name suggested by those in favour of getting rid of O'Neill, is Kevin Ball, who fits that sort of bill perfectly. However, we have been here before and the last time Ball stepped into the Sunderland hot seat, he presided over a run of just one win and two draws in his ten games in charge, including a humiliating home derby defeat to Newcastle Utd. In fairness to Bally, his sort time in charge of the club mirrored that of his predecessor; things got no better but a dreadful situation did not - possibly because it could not - worsen either.
Mick McCarthy left the club in a dire state with relegation a certainty by the time our ex-skipper stepped into the breach. That 2005/06 season should actually provide some perspective; O'Neill is certainly no McCarthy and this Sunderland team is no set of 15 point jokers. Sacking McCarthy made sense because we were finished in the Premier League and he had long outstayed his welcome. O'Neill has his team sitting a precarious six points above the drop zone. Our position may be worrying but we are a long way from certain relegation. Seasons like that one and the 19 pointer before it have imbued us with a sense of impending doom whenever relegation rears its all too familiar head.
Mick McCarthy would ultimately return to the Premier League as manager of Wolves. Ironically, his sacking there serves as an excellent example of why Sunderland should not act accordingly now. The Black Country club removed the former Eire manager from office after a 5-1 drubbing at home to local rivals West Brom. The result left Wanderers in the relegation zone with 13 games left to play. Their subsequent decision to appoint Terry Connor was a catastrophe, serving to highlight how ill thought out the entire farce had been. They went on to be relegated, failing to win a single game under Connor. Matters have gone from bad to worse since and they now find themselves in a battle against successive relegations. All told, a shocking state of affairs, and one that should make anyone involved with Sunderland think twice before calling for O'Neill's head.
Sunderland's own version of Terry Connor arrived after Roy Keane's departure from the club, in the form of Ricky Sbragia. The circumstances surrounding Keane's exit and Sbragia's ascension to the position of manager were different to that of Connor's at Wolves but their brief was the same. Sbragia's charge was to keep Sunderland in the Premier League while those at the top went in search of the man to take the club forward in the long term. Where Connor failed, Sbragia succeeded, but only just.
Sunderland made hard work of things that season and the football on show was at least as negative and ugly - if not more so - than the dross being served up by the current crop. It could be argued that Sbragia's bunch had more pace and quality than those available to O'Neill, in some areas at least. If O'Neill vacated his post now, with no transfer window for any future incumbent to improve the squad before the season's end, then whoever took over would have the same set of plodders to work with as he does. No amount of tactical reshuffling has worked - O'Neill has tinkered with this side a number of times - and with such limited resources available, it's hard to see how anyone with experience, let alone someone like Kevin Ball, could do any better.
The same season Sbragia kept Sunderland up by the smallest of margins saw our neighbours Newcastle Utd go down with a Messiah of their own in charge. When Kevin Ball took over from McCarthy, he had no managerial experience and the same was true of Alan Shearer when he replaced Joe Kinnear at St James' Park. What he did have, which Bally did not, was a club in a position where they could survive, a little worse off than Sunderland are now. Newcastle had two games fewer left to play than Sunderland did when Ball was appointed caretaker manager, but Shearer made similarly bad use of them, though with a far better squad at his disposal. With eight games remaining, the Tynesiders managed one win and two draws with their local hero in charge. They'd had an unstable, calamitous season, but by pandering to the supporters' emotions, they got it wrong as Newcastle failed to get out of the bottom three under Shearer's tutelage.
If Sunderland were going to change managers this season, then the time to do so would have been much earlier. Southampton, unlike Reading, made their move to replace Nigel Adkins with an adequate amount of the season remaining. Even then, the decision to sack Adkins was met with much dismay amongst the Saints support. Similarly, West Brom and Newcastle Utd - this time getting it right - parted with popular managers Roberto Di Matteo and Chris Hughton respectively in the 2010/11 season. Crucially both were moved on at the right time, not nine games before the end of the season. They were also unpopular decisions that ultimately yielded positive results. Sometimes, what the fans want is not always best.
Timing then, is everything, and now is not the time to be thinking about changing managers. Judge O'Neill, dislike him even, make your voice heard but be careful what you wish for. Sacking managers at this time of the season rarely works and there is no reason to think Sunderland would buck the trend by dispensing with O'Neill now. Popular decisions are often wrong, unpopular ones correct. Sometimes fans have to accept, even just in hope, that the club is acting in their best interest.