Martin O’Neill’s first year in charge has been a mixed bag but, viewed in context, still a reasonably successful one. Stuart Rayner reports.
ON Wednesday Martin O’Neill will have been Sunderland’s manager for a year.
Landmarks such as these bring cause for reflection and, in the case of the Black Cats’ manager, a modicum of satisfaction.
Sunderland are not having a great season, and could even be in the Premier League relegation zone by the time they kick off at Carrow Road tomorrow. But the fact they are still in the top flight is an achievement given the parlous predicament he inherited last December.
By getting his successes in first, in a brilliant run of form in his opening three-and-a-half months O’Neill was able to have fans dreaming about Portugal and Italy rather than Peterborough and Ipswich. Now those happy events have been overtaken by a more miserable run of form.
But taking a step back, if O’Neill’s form was spread over a season, it would be one of achievement by Sunderland standards.
Top-half finishes are the yardstick by which the club should be measured and their haul from 37 games (top-flight seasons are 38) would have put them slap back in mid-table last term, and equalled their tally when Steve Bruce led them to 10th 12 months earlier.
“After 37 Premier League games I have got 47 points, so if we get a point it will equal the best since Peter Reid was here,” O’Neill points out.
They say the second season is always harder and, like James McClean, O’Neill has certainly found it that way.
The summer offered a chance to mould a squad more in his image, but things have not quite panned out as planned.
“This season we knew was going to be tough,” he insists. “We signed two players for money (Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher, for a combined £22m) and we have asked those two to play at the top of their ability, which Steven Fletcher has done. We have got work to do in the team. That is very obvious, that we have work to do. I intend to do it.
“The most important issue now is winning some football matches. On Tuesday any one of Fletcher’s chances could have won the game, but by the same token (Sunderland goalkeeper Simon) Mignolet made a great save as well. The games are in the balance, they are very tight.
“Little things can turn the course of a game but winning can restore confidence.”