O'Neill requires time and patience to guide Sunderland in the right direction
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.