In some respects, there was go great surprise to the departure of Martin O’Neill from Sunderland last night. With just two points from his last nine matches in charge of the club, something had gone from the previously ebullient manager’s demeanour, and in television interviews after yesterday’s defeat at the hands of Manchester United he had the air of a dead man walking about him. Where at many other clubs this season it has felt as if managers have been victims of the whims of owners acting with an itchy trigger finger, O’Neill’s departure from the Stadium of Light doesn’t feel like much of a surprise. Ellis Short, the Sunderland owner, had shown loyalty towards O’Neill even after it became more than apparent that Sunderland were heading towards a season of at best mediocrity, but now the club is sliding towards something far more troubling, and whoever steps into his shoes has just seven matches left to try and save the club’s Premier League position.
Following this result, Sunderland now sit just one point above the relegation places in the table, out of form and tumbling in a downward direction at a time of year when no-one in such a position can completely rely upon the results of the clubs below them in the table. Yesterday afternoon, Southampton beat Chelsea whilst Wigan Athletic beat Norwich City. This sort of result seems to become more commonplace at this time of year, as players find those extra reserves of energy from the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds, and it is this combined with a club that seems as rudderless as Sunderland have seemed to be for much of this season which has led to one of the Premier League’s more established institutions sliding silently towards peril in the manner in which they have. Of the sides below them in the table, both Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa hold a game in and over them which could drop Sunderland into the division’s relegation positions.
For all of this, however, there is something decidedly odd about the decision to replace a manager this late in the season. O’Neill’s mojo may well have deserted him in recent weeks, but his replacement will have to find something from somewhere in order to turn this team’s fortunes around. The team’s recent form makes for dismal reading. Sunderland haven’t won in the league since the twelfth of January and their run of failure since then has included losses away to both Reading and Queens Park Rangers, the runts of the Premier League litter and clubs that anybody hoping for another season in the middle of the Premier League table would be expecting to beat. Perhaps the surprise in all of this is timing the decision to offload O’Neill after a home defeat at the hands of Manchester United, a result which cannot be coloured as a surprise, no matter from which angle it is looked.
The rumour mill, of course, starts turning at the very moment that such news becomes public these days and a familiar-looking list of names are already being associated with the now vacant position. Mark Hughes seemed to be the early favourite for the position, something which seemed to be based upon little more than the fact that Hughes has been out of work since losing his job at Queens Park Rangers towards the end of last season, but his position at the head of the betting market has since been usurped by Paolo di Canio. Di Canio has been linked with every position in English football that has become available since he departed from Swindon Town at the start of February and it could be argued that, whilst it could be argued that there are clear and established issues with Di Canio’s temperament (and even his politics), appointing him might at least inspire a little fight at a club that has felt a little torpid at times in recent years. Such an appointment, however, comes with an inherent level of risk and Ellis Short hasn’t seemed that much like a gambler in recent years.
Over the last two decades, whenever the name of Martin O’Neill has been mentioned, that of his mentor Brian Clough has never been far behind. These were heights of expectation that O’Neill could never quite reach and if this were to be his last managerial appointment, it has come with O’Neill being three years older than Clough was when finally retired from Nottingham Forest. As happened with Clough, the tactical aspect of the game has moved on from O’Neill and his teams have started to look increasingly lumpen in recent years. It is now thirteen years since O’Neill’s last win at Wembley with Leicester City and it’s a decade since he negotiated Celtic to the final of the UEFA Cup, and in recent times O’Neill has started to look like a shell of the infectious enthusiast who, we were frequently told, was an eventual shoo-in for one of the biggest managerial jobs going. If his managerial career ends with this departure, he will likely be remembered as a manager who never quite reached the heights that were confidently predicted on his behalf.
Back in the present, however, Sunderland have taken a massive gamble. This decision was not one in which has been forced upon the owners of a club by pressure from its supporters. There have been grumblings this season on Wearside, of course – such is the nature of modern football support – but there haven’t been widespread campaigns against the manager and it was widely expected that Martin O’Neill would at least see this job through to the end of the season. As such, this is a decision the ramifications of which will fall squarely on those that run the club. Should his replacement manage to steer the club back to the Premier League’s lower mid-table region, they may consider that they have made the right decision. Should the team’s stagnation continue, however (and there has been little indication in the form of the players of late to suggest that this might happen), Short might well find that he bears the ultimate responsibility for the club’s fall from grace. With seven games left of Sunderland’s Premier League season, this is a decision which the owner – in more than one respect – cannot afford to have got wrong.
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