ALEX McLeish has confirmed how difficult an act Martin O’Neill was to follow.
There may have been a whole year between the Sunderland boss leaving Aston Villa and McLeish taking over at the club, but O’Neill’s presence can still be felt at Villa Park, especially by the Scot who now occupies the manager’s seat.
The two men take on each other today, hardly for the first time, with Sunderland looking for a win that will help them at worst consolidate their top ten position.
And it does seem O’Neill will get a warm reception from the home support who were distraught when he left in August 2010.
McLeish said: “We want the crowd reception to be 100% behind Aston Villa and to give players the shot of adrenalin that can help them. That was the case in recent games against Chelsea and Stoke. We need them again in these games coming up.
“(But) I’m sure the fans respect what Martin did, to finish in sixth position, a cup final, a European excursion.
“That is why it is difficult for them just now and the last couple of seasons, because we have got a big act to follow.”
There is a deep mutual respect between today’s two managers, even if they are very different characters.
That was forged from their battles in Scotland and McLeish (pictured below) paid a warm tribute to the Northern Irishman.
He said: “I’m not saying Martin and I are bosom buddies from years gone by, but I’ve got great respect for him.
“Martin has had a fantastic career as a manager and I’m still looking to get that kind of status he has got.
“In terms of Martin leaving Villa, nothing surprises me in football. I guess that’s what keeps you guys (the media) going every week, when there is a wee bit of controversy.
“Martin left, it wasn’t any of my business, it was between him and Villa, and he chose to do that. That is his prerogative.” O’Neill’s arrival on Wearside had an immediate positive impact on Sunderland, just as his decision to leave Villa straight away left that team deflated.
And the Midlanders have struggled ever since, something McLeish would love to put right – starting today against the Black Cats.
The Villa boss said: “There are a lot of quality players who have left the club since Martin left and maybe just before he left.
“That is why I said our squad at the start of the season lacked a bit of experience – and you pray the experienced players stay fit.
“Do I wish I had the money O’Neill spent at Villa? Maybe one day. Maybe one day. It is not something I’ve been used to as a manager.”