Supporters who watched on dismayed as Fletcher carried the goal-scoring burden alone were disconcerted as regards O’Neill’s refusal to hand the promising Connor Wickham a fair chance in attack. What’s more, Frazier Campbell was sold to Cardiff City under a year after being handed a full England debut. The ex-Manchester United player has already found the net on six occasions in South Wales.
Likewise, there was bafflement concerning O’Neill’s continued use of midfielders to fill the full-back berths in his side.
As the game evolves, the role of these defenders has become absolutely pivotal, and the men tasked with performing that job are typically multi-faceted – equally adept at contributing to forward raids and extinguishing trouble at the other end.
Any team which deploys left or right sided defenders who are reluctant to cross the half-way line, and lack the instinctive dynamic qualities required to be effective in the position immediately looks one-paced and one-dimensional.
Those two descriptions can be attached to the display of his team in O’Neill’s final match in charge. On paper, a 1-0 reverse against Manchester United is no basis for dismissing the man in charge. Nevertheless, that single goal margin of victory did not accurately reflect a thoroughly mismatched encounter.
Sunderland were a team entirely devoid of belief, inspiration, guile, and imagination. This was a pale imitation of the methods employed to overcome last term’s impending title winners.
United cruised through their Saturday lunchtime encounter. Michael Carrick dictated the match. The England midfielder is a classy presence, but when hurried can be knocked out of his elegant stride – Chelsea proved as much 48 hours later.
On Wearside, the Geordie was never under the remotest pressure as home bodies backed off and passively allowed another three points to gently ebb away.
There was enough evidence in that match for Black Cats’ loyalists to voice genuine concern that their side wouldn’t accrue a further point out of the 21 still available.
Suddenly, amidst a storm of controversy, there is hope. The club’s owner, Ellis Short, made a bold call in drawing the curtain on O’Neill – it was a tacit admission by the American that what had at first looked the dream marriage was not working. The timing of the decision was questionable, but it is perhaps only O’Neill’s reputation which delayed the inevitable.
Short committed a further £9m of funds in January to purchase Frenchman Alfred N’Diaye – a midfielder who appeared spectacularly out of his depth on Saturday, but at 23 has age firmly on his side – and the hitherto misfiring Danny Graham. These are players who are far from certain to fit into the new manager’s plans.
The man with that decision – and a host of others – to make is Paolo Di Canio. If relegation were to befall Sunderland, Short’s new-year outlay would be dwarfed by the loss of a share of the new Premier League television lucre – due to be divvied out at the commencement of next season.
Leaving aside the furore surrounding Di Canio’s political leanings the appointment of the Italian, which has been derided by many respected football people, could yet prove inspired.
The 44 year-old is very much in the modern mould of football managers. Dave Brailsford, the performance director of the wonderfully successful British Cycling Team, and team principal of the Team Sky outfit for who Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France, has often spoken of the application of the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.
The theory behind that concept is that the smallest of improvements in a number of aspects of a team’s approach can combine to have ‘a huge impact to the overall performance of the team’.
That philosophy underpinned Di Canio’s first foray into management with Swindon Town. An unnamed player who worked under the one-time mesmerising West Ham United player, described that period as being akin to working under a ‘dictatorship’.
Ironically for a man full of bright new teaching means, a chunk of Di Canio’s modus operandi is brought with him from his early days as a professional in Italy – where teams are routinely locked away for days ahead of matches and players are expected to live under the most disciplined of ideals.
Every single training session is forensically scrutinised by the manager and his staff, diet is strictly monitored – to the extent that players aren’t allowed butter on their toast – and extreme degrees of fitness are aspired to. There was a period of three months during the current season when Di Canio did not allow his men a single day off.