‘If the season had started the day Martin O'Neill, OBE took the Sunderland job, they'd be top of the table'.
It is, of course, obligatory to open any discussion of O'Neill and Sunderland with this ‘stat', but that doesn't necessarily make it meaningful. The season, after all, begins in August and this isn't the first time O'Neill has effected an upward bounce in a new club's fortunes. In fact, he always effects a pretty instant turnaround. His latest, though, seems especially marked (Sunderland really were inexpressibly terrible in the end-times of Steve Bruce's regime) and is an obvious testament to the Northern Irishman's managerial skill.
Testaments have come, too, from the players. James McClean, the most obvious beneficiary of O'Neill's inclusive style, said: ‘The new manager's lifted everyone around the club. He's given us a new lease of life. He's a remarkable man'. High, but not unprecedented praise, here's Lee Cattermole: ‘He's very intelligent and has massive passion'.
O'Neill, clearly, is liked by his players and that, as Sunderland's results show, can have a positive impact on results. The epithets, ‘remarkable', ‘intelligent' and ‘passionate', speak for O'Neill's personal qualities and the respect these inspire in his players. This respect, then, has made itself felt in the players' performances and so results have likewise picked up.
But (that's been coming for a while hasn't it?), these remarks and the high-respect/good-performance matrix with which they intersect say as much about the old regime as they do about the new. McClean's ‘lift' metaphor implies ‘lowness' as the club's pre-O'Neill condition; Cattermole's homage to his new manager's ‘intelligence' is a back-handed reference to his old manager's lack of smarts.
Conversely, the players' claims also reveal the limitations of MO'N's own approach. These pertain, specifically, to his relatively suspect transfer acumen and his apparently rigid tactical approach; both of which also explain Aston Villa's sixth-place plateau under O'Neill.
In fact, though I'll say again these are relative limitations, these are Bruce's own limitations. To an extent, Bruce's failings in the transfer market have been overstated; the damning figure of twenty-nine signings is mitigated by the fact that Sunderland made a profit from transfers across Bruce's tenure. It remains the case, though, that Bruce oversaw a horrible hodgepodge of additions. The big summer additions, Craig Gardner, John O'Shea and Wes Brown, speak for a lack of imagination that became Bruce's transfer trademark. Sunderland fans should be wary, then, that O'Neill (the man who brought Emile Heskey, Fabian Delph and Curtis ‘pub player' Davies to Villa) has already confessed to spending deadline day trying to convince Bolton substitute Kevin Davies to move to the Stadium of Light.
Of course, O'Neill (like any manager) has to work within the parameters in which the club operates - and these are only partly under his control (the North East's infamous lack of shops/good restaurants is not something a football manager, however genial, can improve). Nevertheless, the identification of ‘big, tall (cheap) man' as a first transfer target is indicative of a certain approach: pace on the wings, big man-little man up front. This can be successful (and Sunderland fans in particular will have fond memories of this model's success under Peter Reid in the late nineties) but it tends, as O'Neill's career to date has shown, to lead, eventually, to stagnation.
This, finally, is what happened to Sunderland under Steve Bruce - whose unimaginative tactics underpinned by an unimaginative tactical approach led to unattractive and ultimately unsuccessful football. Martin O'Neill, though a significantly better manager, is fundamentally the same type of manager.
So far, O'Neill's passion has revitalized Sunderland: ‘A happy worker is a productive worker', after all. This has been underpinned, though unspokenly, by his famous ability to ‘simplify' football. The problem with simplification, though, is that it can't go on indefinitely. O'Neill's challenge will not end with Sunderland's likely top-half (European?) finish and resultantly revitalized fanbase, in fact it will be intensified by those things. Come the close season, O'Neill will have to complicate Sunderland's current model with new players, new tactics and, ultimately, new successes. This is a challenge that, for all his achievements at Wycombe, Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa, he has never quite managed to meet.