After celebrating his first 50 games in charge of Sunderland last weekend, James Hunter takes a look at the Premier League record of all the Black Cats bosses - and finds a certain Irishman on top.
MARTIN O’NEILL is no lover of statistics. Barely a week goes by without some stat or other related to Sunderland’s record – usually poor – against one club or another, yet the Sunderland manager refuses to get too wrapped up in the past.
But when it comes to milestones, it is a different matter.
O’Neill was genuinely surprised when it was pointed out to him that the weekend game against Arsenal was to be his 50th Premier League game in charge of the Black Cats. “Time flies,” he grinned on Friday.
And the next day he became only the fourth Sunderland manager to reach the 50 Premier League game mark, joining Peter Reid, Steve Bruce and Roy Keane in that exclusive club.
Unfortunately the day ended in defeat as the 10-man Gunners clung on to all three points at the Stadium of Light.
Not only did the result spoil the occasion, it also denied O’Neill the chance to top the table of the most successful Sunderland managers after 50 Premier League games.
Just a single point would have seen him go above Reid on goal difference, while a win would have taken him clear on points.
But the beauty of statistics is that, given the right parameters, they can prove virtually anything.
And O’Neill can console himself with the fact that he is the most successful Sunderland manager of the Premier League era, at least in terms of points collected from the number of games played.
O’Neill’s record of 63 points from 50 games gives him a points-per-game ratio of 1.26, putting him ahead of Reid’s 1.2.
And, in turn, Reid is ahead of Bruce (1.15) and Keane (1.02).
Ricky Sbragia (0.91) and Howard Wilkinson (0.55) each had only just over half a season at the helm, while the reigns of caretaker bosses Kevin Ball (0.5) and Eric Black were even more brief – the latter losing his only game in charge.
Setting Black’s blink-and-you-missed-it tenure aside, Mick McCarthy (0.27) brings up the rear.
The former Republic of Ireland manager took charge of a side plummeting towards relegation in 2003 with nine games remaining and lost the lot.
After leading them back into the top flight two years later, he managed only 10 points from 28 games before getting the sack, with Ball taking temporary charge as the club inevitably slipped back in the Championship.
Of course, numbers do not tell the whole story. As Aaron Levenstein said: “Statistics are like a bikini.
“What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”
Reid, by far Sunderland’s longest-serving Premier League manager, can point to back-to-to-back seventh-placed finishes in 2000 and 2001 – Sunderland’s highest league position since the mid-1950s – as evidence of his achievements. Bruce led Sunderland to a 10th-placed finish in 2010 which, was the club’s third-best in over half-a-century.
Even the six months Sbragia spent in charge following Keane’s exit could be looked upon as success of a kind, as he steered the club out of relegation danger despite having no managerial experience and spending no money in the January transfer window.
Like Sbragia, O’Neill’s achievements so far on Wearside have largely been of the ‘safety-first’ kind.
He took over in December 2011 with Sunderland firmly embroiled in a relegation battle and proceeded to lead the club out of trouble, finishing nine points clear of the drop zone in 13th place.
And this season he has come through a rocky first half of the campaign to take Sunderland into lower-midtable and within reach of the top half of the table once more. Having spent his first 50 games saving Sunderland from relegation last season and – it appears – stabilising them this term, the next task for O’Neill is to restore the Black Cats to the kind of heights they enjoyed under Reid at the turn of the Millennium.
The addition of Alfred N’Diaye and Danny Graham last month, which followed the summer arrivals of Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson, has given Sunderland’s squad a much-needed injection of quality.
And the team will evolve still further this summer as O’Neill continues to fashion his playing staff to his own requirements.
The statistics prove that O’Neill is already Sunderland’s most successful Premier League manager. The challenge now is to make the achievements match the numbers.