Farewell, Martin O'Neill

Stu Forster

On Saturday night Sunderland made the shock announcement that they had parted company with manager Martin O'Neill before moving swiftly to replace him with Paolo Di Canio. Here's where it went right and wrong for the man we thought would be the best manager in our lifetime.

It wasn't supposed to end like this. Not for Martin O'Neill. For years he was the man the club and vast majority of supporters wanted. He's a self-confessed Sunderland supporter, despite coming from Northern Ireland with no tangible connection to the club or area. He also had, indeed still has in many respects, the pedigree of an excellent Premier League manager. Only at Sunderland could it all go so very wrong.

Things started well. Perfectly in fact. After watching what would be yet another Sunderland defeat from the stands away to Wolves, O'Neill finally stepped into the breach against Blackburn Rovers. Much like the recent Norwich City game it had the feel of a must win game, despite it being played before Christmas.

Typically, we found ourselves a goal down and were lucky not to be 2-0 behind; Blackburn were unfortunate to see a goal chalked off for a non-existent foul on Westwood. In the second half O'Neill waved his magic wand. An unknown quantity, James McClean, was summoned from the bench and Sunderland were transformed. It'd been a long time since the Stadium of Light had seen a winger in a red and white shirt attack a full back so directly and effectively.

Two superb strikes later and Sunderland had won the game 2-1 in a complete reverse of the mess at Wolves. O'Neill had witnessed the scale of the job at Molyneux, without having an opportunity to have an impact on it. Against Blackburn he was able to inspire a significant turnaround. The win lifted Sunderland and O'Neill took us on a run, increasing hope and raising expectations. I hate to use the word Messiah, but if the cap fits, or in this case halo, then why not? It's how it felt at the time.

A run in the Premier League of 9 wins in his opening 16 games followed. It was to be the peak of his time at the club, culminating in defeat in the FA Cup to our old friends Everton. Even O'Neill could not reverse our fortunes against the Toffees, who we have failed to beat for longer than I care to remember.

That quarter final replay was a reflection of the worst times under his predecessor Steve Bruce. In many respects the hapless way in which Sunderland surrendered and gave away two soft goals - the second in particular was laughable - showed how much work was still to be done. Sunderland failed to win any of the last 8 league games but with safety secured and the summer transfer window looming, surely there was no reason to worry. If O'Neill could get something out of Bruce's squad of squad players, it felt like we only had to wait for the Northern Irishman to build upon it with his own signings before the good times arrived.

Those signings have been the source of much discussion amongst supporters. At the time, ironically, it was the purchase of Steven Fletcher that raised eyebrows while the arrival of Adam Johnson was met with almost unanimous approval. Johnson has proven to be erratic at best, woeful at his worst, whilst if it wasn't for Fletcher's goals Sunderland would find themselves adrift with QPR and Reading at the foot of the table. Danny Rose meanwhile - whilst only on loan - has been a shrewd signing. Carlos Cuellar arrived on a free and has been average at best. All in all, a mixed bag.

This season started slowly and it took until the 5th game, at home against 10 man Wigan for Sunderland to secure their first win. It came on the back of an unbeaten run of draws. It was a solid if unspectacular start to the season. There was hope rather than any real evidence of O'Neill knitting his squad into a cohesive unit on the pitch.

The warning signs were there. Things continued in a similar vein and it took another sending off for Sunderland to pick up their next victory, this time at Fulham in November. The manager and his team were unconvincing at best but given there was still plenty of Bruce's squad left for him to work with, it was hoped things would come together. Another transfer window or two at least looked like being crucial.

The run leading up to that Fulham game included a shameful 1-0 home defeat in the League Cup to Middlesbrough. When Everton put Sunderland out of the FA Cup the previous season it was at least at the quarter final stage and against one of our bogey teams. The indication was there that Sunderland would give the cups a good go under O'Neill. That defeat to Boro was followed up by a similarly pathetic exit in the FA Cup to Championship Bolton Wanderers in a third round replay.

O'Neill, the supposed great motivator, was certainly struggling to get much out of a mediocre bunch of players. He'd just about inspired them to back to back wins in the league in January which, at the time, seemed like being enough to set us up for another boring, mid table end of season finish. If only.

Instead, questionable January signings and even more questionable tactical decisions leave us where we are now, on the cusp of the relegation zone with Wigan below us finding form at the right time. At no point did the crowd turn on O'Neill in the way they did on Steve Bruce. This was the man the fans wanted. There was the usual dissent against certain decisions, which you get at any ground amongst any set of fans but there were no unified chants of "O'Neill out" or any form of protest.

When he did get the push after this weekend's defeat to Manchester Utd the decision was met with shock, though less sadness than it perhaps should have. I envisaged - like many others, no doubt - O'Neill's departure eventually coming after a run of secure Premier League finishes, perhaps even flirting with Europe and a cup final or two.

Instead the memory is of a man struggling to come to terms with modern football, unable to inspire or orchestrate his charges tactically to even provide the mediocrity of safety. Although the sacking came after the Manchester United game, in reality it was probably wins for Wigan and Southampton later that afternoon that sealed O'Neill's fate. After the disaster at home to Norwich, which followed a horror show at QPR, I had lost much of my patience with him but still argued that to get rid of him at this stage would be suicide.

Yet here I am, writing what almost feels like an obituary. In reality nobody has passed away but a dream died on Saturday; a short lived one at that. By the end it had become a nightmare and perhaps, even in spite of the madness of the timing, it was best for all concerned that we were put out of our misery. With Di Canio now installed as manager, do we dare to dream again?

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