I look at Liverpool’s current malaise and I then look at Sunderland’s recent renaissance and I think to myself ‘Thank F***, Liverpool never got Martin O’Neill’.
For a time that seemed a real possibility. Before the beginning of last season, when Liverpool were casting around for a new manager following the departure of Rafa ‘I just like buying players’ Benitez, there were plenty of rumours that O’Neill would be the man to fill the position that today is fast becoming the Premiership’s poisoned chalice.
In the end they plumped for Roy Hodgson, a man whose time at Liverpool could be summed up as ‘the results of Dalglish but at a fraction of the cost’. Had they gone for O’Neill instead then it’s very possible that Liverpool wouldn’t be in the mess they are now. But they didn’t, so they are.
Of course the S***’s loss has been Sunderland’s gain. Under O’Neill Sunderland have played eighteen league matches and taken thirty-one points, storming up the table in the process and currently finding themselves ninth.
It’s a far cry from the utter-crap that the club’s fans were forced to endure under the guidance of previous manager, Steve Bruce. Before he was sacked this season, Bruce had managed to scrape just eleven points from the first fourteen games and in the process led the club deep into the relegation zone.
This weekend Everton once again come up against Sunderland, the third time this fixture has taken place in the past few weeks. And it’s timely that the clubs should have played each other so many times this season, because at the moment they share so many similarities.
Had Liverpool gone for O’Neill instead of Daglish it’s very possible they wouldn’t be in the mess they are now. But they didn’t, so they are.
Like Sunderland, Everton started the season poorly and only began to turn things around as the winter kicked in. Like Sunderland, Everton have become increasingly difficult to play against. Both managers are adept at putting out sides that chase every ball, are hard to break down and possess enough class to give the bigger clubs a run-for-their-money.
Moyes and O’Neil are also skilled at getting the most out of their teams. There’s little between the sides that O’Neill is putting out to those chosen by Bruce and yet the difference in results couldn’t be starker. Look at Moyes’ ten years at Everton and O’Neill’s past stints with Celtic, Villa and Leicester City and you also have plenty of examples of players that didn’t seem particularly talented or effective at other clubs but who blossom under the tutelage of their new managers (or the ‘Darron Gibson’ effect as we know it).
But despite the many similarities there do remain important differences. Although both Everton and Sunderland possess similar levels of turnover, it’s the latter, in the guise of Ellis Short, who have that all-important money-man behind them.
Sunderland also possess something that Everton should have got hold of years ago, namely a new ground. Back in the nineties, at a time when Everton were considering a move away from Goodison, Sunderland pulled down their spiritual home of Roker Park and moved into the new and shiny Stadium of Light.
I was unfortunate enough to be at Roker Park on the last game that was ever played there. And it was unfortunate for three reasons. First, Sunderland stuffed Everton 3-0. Second, I had to watch in horror as hundreds of obese home-fans stripped to the waist and began to goad us like a horde of morlocks. And third, I had the most uncomfortable dining experience of my life before the game when in the greasiest of greasy spoons the scowling glances of four ‘brick-s***-house’ Mackams on a neighbouring table managed to completely destroy the joy of my much anticipated fried-egg butty.
Poignantly for me, the game also took place a few days after Labour’s destruction of the Tories in the 1997 election. I had spent the intervening period in a rare state of complete happiness; excited about the brave new socialist dawn that I felt had arrived and greedily savouring the obvious distress of the few Tories I knew. Sunderland’s routing of Everton brought me back down to earth, destroying a state of bliss that I have since been unable to recapture.
Everton enjoy the same level of attraction to the business community as a heavily unionised workforce.
As I made my way back to the s***-student house I shared in Durham, I was filled with a sudden and complete loathing of Sunderland, a dark mood that relished the fact that their much loved stadium was about to be razed-to-the-ground and that the team was likely careering towards relegation.
And yet in the long-run Sunderland have had the last laugh because the move away from Roker was one of the best things the club has ever done. Not only does the ground make money for them (more executive seating, better facilities and the capacity to host non-football events) but it has also increased their appeal to outside investors.
And so whereas any potential buyer of Everton is confronted with both the club’s debts and the enormous cost of a much needed new ground, for Sunderland it’s only the debts that matter. This is something that has likely contributed to the ease with which they have attracted financial suitors in the past. Everton by contrast seem to enjoy the same level of attraction to the business community as a heavily unionised workforce.
In the coming years this could affect the trajectories of the two clubs. Although both teams possess great managers, good squads and fantastically loyal supporters, I think only one of them really seems to be financially and structurally positioned to compete effectively in the future.
But let’s leave the future for another day. At the moment I’d like to savour an Everton side that is once again making a late assault on the higher echelons of the table. Which is why, I think I’ll put my money on Everton to win the game. Despite two draws this season, in the most recent encounter between the two teams, Sunderland were humbled by an Everton side that was simply majestic.
They might have a better ground than us but we have The Jellyman. And with that sprightly Croatian in our side, the game (and what’s left of the season) is ours for the taking.
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