O'Neill requires time and patience to guide Sunderland in the right direction
SOCCER ANGLES:This is not the time for panic. The man has a record worth the club’s trust, writes MICHAEL WALKER
One year ago tomorrow, Martin O’Neill took his seat in the stands at Molineux to see Sunderland snatch a lead against Wolves. O’Neill was in the process of becoming Steve Bruce’s successor at Sunderland and here was a chance to view the inheritance.
Seven minutes after half-time Kieran Richardson scored for O’Neill’s new team. Within the next half hour, however, Steven Fletcher equalised for Wolves and then scored the winner. Richardson has since departed Wearside. Fletcher is now on Wearside.
The defeat at Wolves meant Sunderland had lost three and drawn two of their last five Premier League games and that run helped explain why Bruce was out of a job.
Prior to Wolves there had been a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan and before that, also at home, a 0-0 draw against Fulham. One point from six from, on paper, two winnable games at the Stadium of Light.
Familiar? It was part of a broader pattern. Up to December, in the calendar year of 2011, Sunderland had played 17 home games and won three of them. One was a defeat to third division Notts County in the FA Cup.
For any home support such a record is hard to stomach. And yet the fans keep coming. For the 18th home game of 2011 there were just shy of 40,000 at the Stadium of Light. Bruce had gone; this was O’Neill’s introduction.
For once fans’ powers of endurance were rewarded with a 90th-minute winner against Blackburn that got O’Neill’s tenure proper off to a winning start. The gutsy roar which greeted O’Neill that day was memorable.
Wearside’s sense of relief was palpable. It felt like the club had once again bottomed out and of the first five home games under O’Neill, Sunderland won four and drew one. A sometimes daunting arena had become a friend again. Sunderland could now begin to construct a fortress mentality at the Stadium of Light.
But the relationship is strained once more. After that initial burst of home pride, Sunderland have played 13 league games at the Stadium of Light and have won three. The latest, Tuesday’s 0-0 draw against QPR, was not just dull, it was concerning.
Accepted wisdom and experience says the winning of home games is the basis of a successful campaign, and as O’Neill entered the stadium last Saturday he must have had a skip of anticipation.
Not only had Sunderland just won 3-1 at Fulham, the game against West Brom was the first of four at home in 17 days. Here was opportunity, here was a chance to correct things.
Then West Brom won 4-2.
The imbalance in home and away numbers had been caused by the postponement of the August match against Reading. An assumption was Sunderland would have won that; an assumption was Sunderland were in a false position in the table. The best thing to do was to wait until that Reading fixture was over (December 11th) and see then where Sunderland were before passing judgment.
That is still the case, probably. Of course we will know more by the time the team has been to newly-confident Norwich (tomorrow) and hosted freshly-anxious Chelsea (next Saturday).
But, after the 0-0 against QPR, O’Neill mentioned his own players’ heightened sense of anxiety when in front of their fans. He is not the first Sunderland manager to make this sort of comment, nor are his players. Wearside has a reputation for demanding supporters.