The Easter weekend might not have carried the feel of a Christian celebration for Martin O’Neill or Neil Warnock with these two ‘old-school’ football managers being the latest members of the profession to lose their jobs – although in the former Sunderland boss’ case the blow will be softened by a tidy pay-off.
The departure of Warnock from Elland Road raised fewer eyebrows than O’Neill’s hastily announced exit from the Stadium of Light on Saturday night. In truth, the two men have in common the fact that the modern game is leaving behind their somewhat dated methods – both in terms of training ground approach and match tactics.
When O’Neill took charge of a floundering Sunderland team 16 months ago he was welcomed on Wearside as a saviour, the ideal motivator to rejuvenate a team which had lost its way under Steve Bruce.
The new manager bounce took immediate hold when the Northern Irishman began his reign by overseeing a comeback 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers – the side then sitting a place and a point below the Black Cats in the final relegation spot.
A real upturn in form and spirit at the club was best embodied by a dramatic, compelling, and fiercely resolute new-year’s day win against Champions-elect, Manchester City. O’Neill’s side employed Muhammad Ali’s renowned rope-a-dope tactics, wearing every punch that their eminent visitors could throw without being breached and then breaking to score the only goal with the last kick of the match through Ji Dong-Won.
In retrospect, that thrilling win, secured amidst bedlam not seen among success starved Mackems outside of any derby day triumph since the relatively heady days of Peter Reid’s high-flying team’s, might have set a dangerous precedent.
The ability to soak up waves of pressure which is being applied by superior opponents, before unleashing a solitary telling counter is at once exhausting to body and mind, and a tactic which requires a certain amount of luck if it is to prove bountiful. It is not a strategy which should be routinely adopted.
O’Neill’s Sunderland, however, quickly became a manifestly ponderous unit, set-up to sit deep and sporadically raid forward through Adam Johnson, Stephane Sessegnon, James McLean – if utilised – and this season’s lone beacon, Steven Fletcher.
The style of their football called for energetic legs, hard tackling, and fierce concentration. With O’Neill’s resistance to look beyond a small group of players, fatigue quickly took hold and his team became an evidently tired and uninspired bunch.
This isn’t unique to an O’Neill side. During four terms in charge at Aston Villa, the two time European Cup winner in his playing days with Nottingham Forest led the Midlands club to three 6th placed finishes. Nevertheless, a recurring criticism of that spell at Villa Park was the team’s habit of tailing off as the summer months arrived. That phenomenon was widely considered the fault of the manager being reluctant to select beyond a limited in number favoured, trusted, and consequently tired group.
Weariness was uncharacteristically prevalent in O’Neill of late. Previously celebrated for his ebullient and animated nature, the man known for his touchline theatrics has cast a subdued figure throughout this campaign, notably shorn of all his famed enthusiasm.
Nobody who has followed O’Neill’s career can have foreseen such a barren run in his latest role. The slump began as long ago as March last year when Everton comprehensively won an F.A. Cup quarter-final replay at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland didn’t take 3 points from any of their eight remaining games following that deflating Tuesday night in front of the watching nation.
Fresh optimism ahead of the present campaign came in the expensive and exciting acquisitions of Steven Fletcher and, most strikingly, Manchester City’s Adam Johnson – purchases which were accompanied by a fervent belief that O’Neill was the perfect fit for the hot-seat at a club which he supported during childhood.
An unremarkable start to the season, which was defined by a succession of dour draws, gave way to concern as porous tendencies and a sole reliance on Fletcher for goals provided the formula only for a series of damaging defeats.
Being beaten on home territory by local adversaries Middlesbrough in the League Cup was unpalatable, but seeing West Bromwich Albion travel back south having scored four goals in the course of taking three points, and Aston Villa making a similar return journey having bagged their first away victory of the season provoked more serious concern.
It is more than poor results which have been levelled as criticism at O’Neill. Johnson, of whom a colossal amount was expected, has had a negligible impact. McLean, having been the success story of O’Neill’s embryonic reign, has regressed alarmingly.
For a manager who places great store on the effective utilisation of his wide-men – think Steve Guppy at Leicester City, Alan Thompson at Celtic, and Ashley Young at Villa – the inability to bring a tune out of his wingers at Sunderland is a black mark on O’Neill’s record.
The curious summer additions of Louis Saha and James McFadden were unmitigated failures, neither starting a first-team game before leaving the club.