Martin O’Neill has led Sunderland to within touching distance of the relegation zone, Rafael Benitez has won the European Cup. Stuart Rayner examines the value of first impressions to the Black Cats manager
THE first anniversary of Martin O’Neill’s appointment as Sunderland manager has brought some pretty uncomfortable comparisons.
This time last year, the Black Cats were a point above the relegation zone, with two wins from their first 14 games of the campaign.
Fast forward 12 months and they are a point above the relegation zone, with two wins from their first 14 games of the campaign.
That’s progress for you. There is, though, one hugely important difference. Last season’s start had Sunderland’s supporters calling for manager Steve Bruce’s head so loudly that on November 30, owner Ellis Short delivered it.
It would be wrong to say there have not been rumblings about O’Neill, but they are not even close to the seismic levels which toppled Bruce.
There, in a nutshell, is the importance of first impressions.
As a Geordie – and a self-confessed boyhood Newcastle United fan – Bruce started from a position of weakness. The problem was not insurmountable – a certain Bob Stokoe managed it as the statue Bruce posed for his first-day photographs alongside pointedly proved. While Bruce might like you to think otherwise, his managerial failings earned him his last Christmas holiday. But his background certainly did not help. You only needed listen to the vitriolic chants aimed his way at what proved his last game. The size of his waistline and the legitimacy of his birth were definitely secondary complaints.
O’Neill, by contrast, arrived at Sunderland as a Messiah.
The Black Cats had tried and failed to bring him to Wearside five years earlier. That absence only made Sunderland hearts grow fonder.
While Bruce had a decent track record with similarish-sized clubs, O’Neill had medals. And while Bruce spent his Saturday afternoons on the St James’ Park terraces as a boy, O’Neill was following the Wearsiders from afar.
If O’Neill was visibly uncomfortable about playing up his Sunderland links when asked about them earlier this season, they are undoubtedly serving him well now. If he needed a worst-case scenario about what life would be like without the comfort blanket of popular support, he need only look into the opposite dugout this afternoon.
O’Neill and Rafael Benitez have had their moments in the past, most notably when Benitez’s Liverpool tried to force through Gareth Barry’s transfer from Aston Villa, although the Ulsterman thinks their differences have been settled now – “I’m sure we have, it’s that long ago.”
O’Neill was shocked at the situation Benitez has been catapulted into, even if it does not vocalise as sympathy. Bruce would not know he was born.
Benitez grew up in Madrid, hardly a hotbed of anti-Chelsea hysteria, and had not managed a club within 200 miles of Stamford Bridge when he became the latest temporary manager (this time officially) of Roman Abramovich’s tenure.
But once upon a time Benitez managed a Liverpool side who did regular battle with Chelsea at home and in Europe. As many of them were tighter than Linford Christie’s running shorts, they regularly spilt out into wars of words between Benitez and José Mourinho. It did not exactly endear him to Chelsea’s fans.
Add in that Benitez was replacing a genuinely popular Chelsea manager – Roberto Di Matteo won over Stamford Bridge with his performances as a classy midfielder long before leading them to two trophies in a matter of weeks – and Benitez was on a hiding to nothing. It mattered little that Benitez had a European Cup winner’s medal tucked away, not to mention a couple from La Liga, one in the Uefa Cup and another for the World Club Championship Chelsea head to next week.
“You’d have to say it was a big surprise that Di Matteo went after everything he’d done for Chelsea,” says O’Neill. “They’re the FA Cup holders and won the Champions League. That was the holy grail for Chelsea and they won it. It was only the last couple of game of his tenure that they didn’t get the results. Their performances early season, everybody was raving about them so it came as a major surprise.
“Nothing too much surprises any of us about football but I was genuinely taken aback by that. If we asked a few other managers I think they’d think the same thing.
“Di Matteo having done what he did was held in very high esteem by the Chelsea faithful. From that viewpoint maybe their reaction is something born out of that.”
So poisonous is the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, so nervous at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland can consider themselves unfortunate to have home disadvantage in this afternoon’s Premier League clash between two sides low on form and confidence.
Before O’Neill starts cursing his misfortune, he might consider how lucky he is to have the well-earned credit he is currently drawing on. What would he do if he were Benitez?
“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” he says.
So long as he never accepts a job at Newcastle or Birmingham City, he will hopefully never find out.