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.
And yet, just how demanding are they? There were 36,000 locals at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, after 36 hours of torrential rain. They booed a bit at the final whistle but they were entitled to do so.
But there is no collective bad reaction to O’Neill, and though there are plenty with moans about style, tactics, personnel and the rest, that’s the same at Manchester United or a former O’Neill club, Celtic.
What separates Sunderland supporters from those two are facts such as the last trophy being in 1973 – soon it will be the 40th anniversary of the FA Cup win over Leeds – and the last league title being in 1936, just as Hitler was reoccupying the Rhineland.
There have been some “triumphs” since ’73 but winning the Third Division in 1988 is one of them. In that context, Sunderland fans, and their ilk down the road at Newcastle, are patience personified.
And St James’ Park may hold some kind of comparison too. When a manager of comparable stature to O’Neill, Bobby Robson, arrived at Newcastle in the autumn of 1999, he guided Newcastle to 11th that season. After Ruud Gullit’s dramatic departure, that was considered fine and stable.
And there were not too many grumbles the following season when Newcastle again finished 11th. Then, in his third season, Newcastle jumped to fourth. With that momentum, they then came third and fifth – after which Robson was sacked.
What those first, forgotten two seasons did was allow Robson to bed in, to assess the squad and to start to change it. He was given time because of earlier upheaval and because he was Bobby Robson.
At the beginning of his third season he bought pace – Craig Bellamy from Coventry and Laurent Robert from Paris St-Germain. This was not a cheap option – Robson never shied away from a favourite word of his – “investment”. But it gave Newcastle a new dimension.
Sunderland should have that capability already. Stephane Sessegnon, bought by Bruce, now has Fletcher and Adam Johnson nearby. Under O’Neill last season – initially – James McClean, Seb Larsson and the rest were buzzing around conspicuously. Sunderland had momentum; on Tuesday against QPR, they didn’t. The side bottom of the table were not asked enough questions.
That this came after the loss to West Brom added to a new uncertainty about O’Neill calling Wearside “home”. Last Saturday night the club were fielding calls about resignation rumours despite longevity being a characteristic of O’Neill’s management.
O’Neill scotched those rumours, but he was one subdued Irishman on Tuesday night.
He has had two transfer windows, and in the first did not buy anyone. But January cannot come soon enough. Sunderland don’t need pace as much as they need power – in midfield and central defence. (By the way, how many centrehalves do they need to buy before one fits?) So there is discomfort, “absolutely”, as O’Neill would say.
There may be some more tomorrow at Norwich. But the priority is to make Sunderland’s home “home” again. And tiresome as it is to the knee-jerk world we inhabit, what is also needed is time and patience.
The man has a record worth Sunderland’s trust. A first anniversary is as good a moment as any to ponder that.