Sacred cows: Martin O’Neill
A new series offering a different take on some of football’s most exalted reputations.
For the first time in his managerial career, Martin O’Neill appears under pressure. Next Monday marks the first anniversary of his appointment at Sunderland, amid much fanfare.
But the Black Cats sit a disappointing 16th in the Premier League, even after spending £22m on new players in the summer.
It can hardly be what Sunderland fans were hoping for – yet they should not be surprised at the team’s mediocre showing.
O’Neill’s reputation may still be glowing among the cosy punditry of mainstream football media.
However, close examination of his CV reveals more holes than in Sunderland’s defence – poor judgement in the transfer market, a narrow tactical focus, unattractive playing style, and ultimately, limited managerial success in English football.
As a player, the Northern Irishman had a central role in Brian Clough’s famous Nottingham Forest team, who won two European Cups and stuck to purist passing principles in doing so.
But when he moved into management, O’Neill forgot Old Big Ead’s famous maxim – that God would have put grass in the clouds if he wanted football played up there.
At Leicester City, O’Neill delivered the most successful period in the club’s history – but it was hardly the kind of football Cloughie would have enjoyed.
His Foxes were a direct team, in the style of Wimbledon a decade earlier. O’Neill employed a 3-5-2 featuring craggy centre halves like Steve Walsh and Spencer Prior, bite-your-legs midfielders in Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet, and old warhorse Steve Claridge up front.
Their finest hour came in a League Cup final replay at Hillsborough in April 1997, when his unfashionable team overcame the star-studded Middlesbrough of Ravanelli and Juninho. The winning goal, in extra time, perfectly illustrated the O’Neill philosophy; a free kick near half-way lumped into the penalty box, nodded across goal by Walsh, and hooked in by Claridge.
That, plus another League Cup win over lowly Tranmere three years later, remain the former Northern Ireland captain’s only English trophies as a manager – and in a competition severely weakened by top clubs fielding reserve teams.
O’Neill’s limited brand of football was fine in the hurly-burly of the Scottish Premier League, his next port-of-call. At Celtic, he won three out of five of the two-horse title races, and reached the final of another fading competition, the UEFA Cup. He quit the Bhoys due to his wife’s illness in 2005.
From hero to villain
His return to management was eagerly awaited by pundits and English clubs alike. He was by now a colourful addition to the studio sofa at major tournaments, which no doubt helped cement his relationship with the football media.
Eventually, he was successfully courted by Aston Villa, reinvigorated by new American owner Randy Lerner’s considerable bank balance.
On paper – or to a lazy summariser – O’Neill’s tenure at Villa Park looks decent: sixth place three times in the Premier League, and another league cup final.
And yet, as the excellent financial blog Swiss Ramble observes, that was the very least he should have achieved, given how generously – or foolishly – Lerner backed him in the transfer market.
O’Neill’s net spending on transfer fees totalled £84m from 2006 to 2010. From 2008, Villa’s outlay was more than Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham – all of whom achieved Lerner’s cherished goal of Champions League qualification. Villa did not.
Among the manager’s costlier buys whose careers made little further headway were: Curtis Davies (£9.5m), Nigel Reo-Coker (£8.5m), Marlon Harewood (£4m), and Zat Knight (£3.5m).
All were established players at Premier League level, and so all of them commanded high wages. And all of them are British – reflecting O’Neill’s narrow focus when scouting for new talent.
It’s also worth pointing out how well-served O’Neill was by Villa’s excellent youth policy – with players like Gabriel Agbonlahor coming through the ranks – yet still he wanted new signings.
The football was more expansive than at Filbert Street, as it should have been with such a costly squad. But the manager’s favourite tactic was still a variation on route one – long balls out of defence into the channels, exploiting the pace of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young. Villa fans were calling him tactically inflexible by the end.
When Lerner finally realised O’Neill’s limitations, a club once run so prudently by ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis had dived heavily into the red. Aston Villa’s latest financials, for 2010/2011, show a £54 million loss.
Randy’s readies dried up.
The legend lives on – or does it?
With no chequebook to back him, O’Neill walked out of Villa Park in summer 2010 – just five days before the new season.
Predictably, his supporters in the press ignored the Ulsterman’s profligacy in the transfer market, and blamed the board for not backing him. Astonishingly, during this period his name was regularly linked to the two most glamorous jobs in the English game: Manchester United and England.
So Sunderland probably saw O’Neill’s appointment as a coup.
A year on, and it looks anything but.
There have been some familiar failings. Expensive British signings have arrived and underperformed – Steven Fletcher (£12m) and Adam Johnson (£10m).
One of O’Neill’s trademarks as a manager has been his ‘animated’ behaviour in the technical area. Fans like this ‘show of commitment’. Yet during Saturday’s 2-4 defeat against West Bromwich Albion, his antics looked faintly ridiculous in contrast to the calmness of opposite number Steve Clarke, whose team are travelling in the opposite direction to O’Neill’s.
After the game, rumours circulated that the Sunderland manager had resigned, which were swiftly rebutted.
Yet, as was the case at Villa, it may be that falling on his sword is the only way Martin O’Neill can salvage anything from his overinflated reputation.