Survival imperative for O’Neill as patience wearing thin at Sunderland

Irish manager’s side involved in a Premier League relegation dogfight


Martin O’Neill made the accurate observation on Thursday that “as a manager nowadays you can be judged on any given 10 minutes”. It is a remark that captures the hysteria and decreasing levels of patience within sport in general and top-flight football in particular.

A good 10 minutes at the start of today’s Sunderland-Manchester United game and some of the wariness gathering on Wearside about O’Neill would dissipate. A bad 10 minutes and it would be re- enforced.

The 10-minute judgment has become like a gateway opening to a larger opinion forming, or already formed, in the background.

It was there on Tuesday night in Dublin and Podgorica. In a 10-minute spell towards the end of the second half, with Irish players tiring as they defended a 2-1 lead against Austria, Giovanni Trapattoni replaced two players, Ciaran Clark and Shane Lone.

But the essential starting formation remained, and Trapattoni’s decisions were looking just-about justified until Austria’s injury-time equaliser.

Suddenly those on the verge of reassessing Trap’s tenure after the impressive 0-0 draw in Stockholm four days earlier were able to return to that greater view established over the length of Trapattoni’s five years in charge. It is a less generous opinion of the Italian’s influence on Irish football, and understandably so.

Meanwhile in Montenegro, those with existing doubts about Roy Hodgson as manager of England were having them eased by an opening 45 minutes as England impressed.

Question mark
The opening 10 minutes of the second half put a question mark against that. Roy Keane on the ITV panel had said at half-time that what this England team have not done is perform convincingly over 90 minutes and that here was the opportunity.

But by the 55th minute the game had changed and England were already hanging on. The camera panned to Hodgson on the touchline, doing not very much. Okay there is something likeable about Hodgson’s 1950s suburban restraint.

But he needed to do something: his team required change, either in terms of personnel or tactics or both. The match was running away from England and while it took until minute 76 for Montenegro to equalise, the word “paralysis” was already being penned about Hodgson.

His opposite number, Branko Brnovic, had not hesitated to make a half-time substitution and that the man who came on, Dejan Damjanovic, scored only heightened scrutiny of Hodgson’s reluctance to make a change until after that goal.

This will go down against Hodgson. One of the few tangible measurements we truly have as watchers of managers is how, when and why they make – or do not make – substitutions. It is a line people trot out about Jose Mourinho, how decisive he is in this department.

Rafa Benitez is hardly top of the pops at Stamford Bridge but even his Chelsea haters were prepared (silently) to concede Benitez changed the game at Old Trafford three weeks ago with his substitutions.

Trailing 2-0 after 11 minutes to United, Chelsea looked ready to cave in. But, helped by United’s post-Madrid sluggishness, they held out until the interval. Seven minutes after it Benitez made one of the most potentially explosive decisions of his numbered Chelsea days when he replaced Frank Lampard with John Obi Mikel. There was an intake of breath.

Match traffic
At the same time Benitez put on Eden Hazard for Victor Moses and seven minutes later Hazard had scored and the direction of the match traffic was altered. Chelsea drew 2-2 and could have won. If Rafa Benitez were not Rafa Benitez, his stock at Chelsea would have duly risen.

But Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea are a part of the 10-minute judgment. Benitez is the ninth incumbent in nine years. A series of knee-jerks from above leads to the situation where grown men take home-made cardboard posters with them to Stamford Bridge. “Rafa Out. Fact.” And so on.

Blackburn Rovers have done their bit for impatience over the past 18 months, carving through managers. The 67 days allotted to Michael Appleton surely counts as a 10-minute judgment, if that. This was rather different to the famous 44 days Brian Clough had at Leeds – that was mutual loathing dressed up as management.

The League Managers’ Association used the term “embarrassing” about Appleton’s sacking and for once you could endorse their opinion.

O’Neill has had 16 months on Wearside and took over a team that had just lost at Wolves. Sunderland were 17th in the Premier League; this morning they are 15th. During the last game – a 1-1 draw at home to 10-man Norwich – various 10-minute judgments were formed. None of them were kind to O’Neill, who made no substitutions until the 71st minute.

He needs the club to survive this season and for people to then realise he has only been in the Sunderland job – by comparison with the man in the opposite dugout today, Alex Ferguson – for about 10 minutes.