In the wake of Steve Bruce’s sacking by Sunderland’s rootin’ tootin’ billionaire Texan owner Ellis Short six weeks or so ago, scores of the flump-faced failure’s fellow managers jumped to his defence, asserting that he’d been hard done by and that he was the latest victim of unreasonable fan pressure.
We ‘unreasonable’ Sunderland fans knew beyond any doubt that this assertion was unbridled horseshit – Bruce had outstayed his welcome and it was unthinkable that he’d be able to turn around a Sunderland side that was plummeting down the Premier League. In the first 14 games of this season, Bruce’s rebuilt team had only been able to muster 11 points. Two home wins since New Year’s Day 2011 simply wasn’t good enough. Exit Bruce, amid calls for Diego Maradona to come in and sort the mess out.
Sadly, that didn’t happen and it was Martin O’Neill who got the job instead. Since inheriting Bruce’s squad of flailing non-achievers, the vaguely weird Northern Irishman has managed to post 13 points on the board in the space of just six matches. This includes Sunday’s win over Manchester City with a back five comprising of two midfielders playing as full-backs, a centre-half who had been frozen out of the team for more than 18 months and a goalkeeper with a plastic face. The dramatic change in fortunes has been akin to giving a dying dog a shot of adrenaline straight in the heart.
As a manager, everywhere Martin O’Neill has gone, he’s improved things – and the early signs suggest that he’s going to do the same with Sunderland
So how come it’s all got so much better so quickly? It’s as much about attitude as anything else. In his final few months, Bruce seemed far keener to blame outside influences, including the club’s fans and their ‘expectations’ rather than pinpoint what was going wrong and acting on it. This even led to a ‘Steve Bruce Blames…’ blog , updated after every Sunderland match with the big man’s latest blatherings.
In terms of personnel, the players he brought in are more than capable of doing the job – O’Neill has proved that in an astonishing first month in charge. But tactically, Bruce was sorely lacking every single time it mattered. The man never had a plan B, unless the B stood for ‘buffet’. His motivational skills needed to be questioned as well. The new manager is renowned for his ability to get the best out of limited players – if Bruce was playing the blame game with the media, just what was he telling his squad in the dressing room? God only knows.
O’Neill has got the players believing in themselves again and their response to him has immediately reinvigorated the fans. There’ll be some of the new recruits who have had their eyes opened as to just how much of a driving force the Sunderland fans can be when they’re not continually being served up dross for months on end.
Players who were gasping for air have suddenly grown a few inches. At the start of the season, club captain Lee Cattermole looked destined for the exit door, a liability whose headless chicken approach to tackling left fans running sweepstakes as to when he’d get his inevitable booking. In the past month, he’s been a revelation, with a more measured approach to his game that we’ve never seen before in his time in our midfield.
Then there’s winger James McClean – an unknown Irishman who Bruce signed in the summer from Derry City but omitted to put in the team. O’Neill has given him a chance and his bustling, no-nonsense style could make it impossible for the manager to leave him out again. Quick, strong and with a hell of a cross in his locker, McClean has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water. O’Neill now needs to find a player who can regularly get on the end of said crosses – on-loan sociopath Nicklas Bendtner probably isn’t the answer.
As a manager, everywhere Martin O’Neill has gone, he’s improved things – and the early signs suggest that he’s going to do the same with Sunderland. It feels like the perfect fit for both the club and the manager and the ‘magic carpet ride’ that Niall Quinn promised when he took over the club in 2006 could finally be about to start…
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