Jake gets the gaffer's point. Do the players?

Martin O’Neill has been in charge for twelve months now and Salut! Sunderland contributors have their own thoughts on the success or otherwise of the Ulsterman’s time at the helm. Malcolm Dawson looks at what is going wrong, argues that a rethink is necessary and weighs up the O’Neill In/Out arguments …

Time for Change?

There is no doubt the start to this season has been yet another chapter of unfulfilled expectation that seems to be the lot of the Sunderland fan.

It is coming up to 50 years now since I saw my first game at Roker Park and in that time the disappointments have far outweighed the glorious times. It is 20 years since we reached the FA Cup final and coming up to twice that since we had our hands on a major trophy.

In recent years, the best times we have seen were those when we were challenging for promotion and two seasons under Peter Reid when we finished seventh and, for a time, looked like we might even climb higher.

We can find several reasons why, in between times, we have had to put up with some utter dross. But this season was supposed to be different, wasn’t it? We have the man we had been crying out for in charge. We brought in a flair player in Adam Johnson and two proven Premier League goalscorers in Fletcher and Saha. Things were looking rosy so what’s gone wrong?

Jake hopes the red kryptonite effect will wear off soon

There are plenty of people posting their views on certain players. Colback comes in for a lot of stick for his negative approach. Johnson is criticised for not being the match winner we hoped he would be. Larsson, Sessegnon, McClean are not firing on all cylinders and the talk is about spending big in January if we are to get out of this mess. There are the beginnings of discontent with O’Neill and already names are being bandied about as possible replacements.


Well I suggest that that neither is the answer.

The popular view is that our current squad is neither large enough, nor good enough to get us into the top half. I disagree. I’m not going to dispute that signing a few quality players would strengthen the squad as that is obvious, but I would argue that we already have the players to get us out of the dogfight and into the top 10. I’m not going to say we are in a false position and it will all come good either. Results don’t lie. But in my eyes the problem is one of approach.

I’m not calling for O’Neill to go … yet. I still think he can turn things around. Of course I’m not an ex-international footballer, I haven’t played under Brian Clough, nor managed Shepshed Charterhouse and Glasgow Celtic, but I see the way the manager sets up his team and the style of play he wants them to adopt as the problem.

There was someone on this site a while back who, defending the MON approach, asked if we wanted to see the team lose 4-5 every game. Of course I don’t want to see us get beaten but I’d rather see us lose 5-4 when we have posed the opposition problems and given ourselves a chance of winning than watch a team sit back and concede without threatening to get in the opposing penalty area. Let’s take a few snapshots of the season so far to illustrate my point.

Wigan – we won but only after almost conceding early on, after the Latics had a player sent off and after a wayward shot became a perfect ball for Fletcher to latch onto and tuck away as a proven striker should. Apart from that we never looked like a threat to a mid-table side with a player short.

Newcastle – we got a point but only after they were reduced to 10 men and a lucky deflection off an opponent found the back of the net. Apart from that we looked more likely to lose than win.

Aston Villa. A poor side beat us at home. Did we look like an attacking force? As the game wore on an increasingly desperate manager took off defenders and threw on players who ought to have been more attack minded. It didn’t work and I never thought we’d score.

West Brom, Fulham and Norwich. In those games we started slowly and began to look good in the second half but in two of those games it was only after we went two-nil down, too late to engineer even a point. In the other it took another sending off to galvanise the team and even then we allowed an equaliser before sealing the win.

Jake asks: back to the drawing board?

So when have we looked like a threat? My answer is when we are attack minded and have been chasing the game. Apart from the Arsenal game I have never felt convinced we wouldn’t concede but in almost every game, including those against bottom club QPR and Championship Middlesbrough, I never thought we’d score.

As I said I’m not in favour of O’Neill going yet, either of his own volition or his being forced out. The club needs stability and any manager needs time but I fear unless we see a change of tactics the Arsenal fans who said we were in for a boring time and the Villa fans who said MON’s stubbornness will not take the club to the heights we crave will be proved right.

* Malcolm Dawson is the deputy editor of Salut! Sunderland. if you believe you can sum up Martin O’Neill’s year as well or better, or just differently, this is your chance. Do so as a comment below or by writing your own article and sending it to salutsunderland@gmail.com

*** See the full O’Neill One Year On series at this link: http://salutsunderland.com/category/martin-oneill-one-year-on/

And Monsieur Salut has become very gloomy: read his latest contribution on the ESPN blog http://soccernet.espn.go.com/blog/_/name/sunderland/id/710?cc=5739



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Born in Hetton le Hole, deputy editor Malcolm Dawson's first game at Roker Park was the three all draw with Leicester City at the beginning of the 64-65 season. Having spent more than thirty years living in the East Midlands, he was Chairman and Information Officer of the Heart of England Branch of the Supporters' Association but has now returned to live in County Durham.

17 Responses to “O’Neill One Year On: (1) should he stay or should he go?” Subscribe

  1. Goldy December 4, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    It’s a good observation Malcolm but I’d raise the point of the other sides becoming more complacent when they are two goals up. Their game mentality automatically changes also – they start sitting deeper instinctively as they have a cushion. If we attacked like we’re chasing a game at 0-0, with our midfield, we’d get sliced through like butter.

    We do need to start a bit more on the front foot, absolutely. Disagree bout West Brom game, we were looking good before they scored a peach.

    Last January was the first window I think I have ever asked for no activity. We shouldn’t go all gun-ho in this one either, certainly not the Q.P.R way. But a central midfielder is a must. Diame and Nzonzi have been big players for West Ham ans Stoke. No amount of Martin O’Neill evolution of tactics can make Larsson, Gardner or Colback actually want and show for the ball.

    I generally think 442 is a bad idea due to our lack of presence in midfield to start with – but Whickham’s performance on Sunday has made me question that. The players didn’t seem boxed in as he provided a great focal point.

    We’re playing like a very limited side, let’s show the spirit those sides normally do.

  2. vince December 4, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    Well I did not expect a good season this time round.The writing was on the wall end of the last one with the abject perfomances following our FA cup exit.

    MON lost his team after that and I always suspected he would have a hard time lifting them afgain come the opening of this season.If a manager allows players in his side to slip how do you get them motivated later?
    MON should have had a major clear out and found more new blood.Yes he brought in a few decent payers bit they have quickly decended to the level of those around them,like the proverbial bad apples in a barrel.

    Take Rednapp for example, plays them and if they don’t do the business they are out the next week and new face is draughted in.I am not condoning it but it seems it is the modern way these days

    ……..how else do you motivate millionares?

    • malcolm December 4, 2012 at 11:26 am #

      Just read that Daniel Sturridge has said that if he were to sign for Liverpool he would have a clause in his contract that said he would have to play down the middle, not on the wing.

      A case of the cart leading the horse and if true backs up your point. Bit like McClean’s spat with his international manager. In a few years time will we see clubs operating without a manager and allowing the players to pick the team – like we used to do in the school playground?

  3. Tom Lynn December 4, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    I want MON to succeed as much as anyone and it is frightening that this season has been so abysmal so far.
    A lot of it has been down to tactics [and you don't need a UEFA 'A' coaching badge to see this-your eyes do it for you], setting us up like an away team at home, leaving Fletcher ridiculously isolated on most occasions and some players having been chosen week in, week out despite not doing the business. Central midfield is the Achilles heel of the team and lacks pace, vision and goals and the weakness there has contributed to the overall ineffectiveness of Adam Johnson, for example, who deserves a break from the ridiculous animosity that has come his way from many fans. He is a good player who has come into a side that at the moment can hardly be described as average. Colback did play too many under-par games and needed to be taken out, Bardsley has been poor overall since his return, Larsson has not warranted regular inclusion, Wickham should have been utilised weeks ago and Sessegnon is a luxury we cannot afford unless a definitive, effective position is found for him-possibly worth a try wide right? Too often there are mesmerising skills but little end product.
    MON is an intelligent man with a very good footballing CV and we are all willing him to do well. First of all, however, he must help himself by changing the way we start games, the way we are set up and encourage the team to play in a far more adventurous fashion.

  4. davey December 4, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Of course we should get rid of MON
    It’s over a year since we last sacked a manager
    Good grief , all the top managers in the game will be lining up for the opportunity of managhing us for a year !!

    • Michael December 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

      Exactly. Good choice out there .Hughes,Curbishley,de Matteo and Steve Keane………oh well maybe not.

      MON definitely the right man .He just needs to find the vital spark that will ignite our season. Last year it was James McClean, maybe this year it will be Connor Wickham. Would still like to see Meyler in midfield instead of Colback.

  5. Jane Doe December 4, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Martin O’Neill is one of the most respected managers in British football– the ignominy of sacking him would haunt our club for years.

    … Wouldn’t it?

    The press at large is incredibly fond of telling us that ‘football is a result-based business’– that line gets trotted out every time a club is struggling or a manager is sacked. By that standard, then, it would make sense for MON to go.

    Like Malcolm, I believe that MON is the best man for the job, despite (or in spite of) recent results.

    This is not to say that I am ignorant of the problems we are presently experiencing.

    One of the (IMHO) most confusing developments of this season was the loaning of David Meyler to Hull. I don’t believe he’s Xavi, but in the absence of Cattermole, I’d prefer to see him in midfield. He’s got the physical presence that Gardner, Colback and Larsson lack. He did incredibly well at MK Dons earlier this season (playing at centre back) and he always puts in a solid shift. I know it’s a bit tiresome to hear of players ‘putting in good graft’ when they haven’t produced much (think pundits fawning over Milner at the Euros) but I’d have Meyler in over the three we have at present.

    And then there’s the McClean situation. As in, what has happened to James McClean?! He was enthralling to watch last season– he used his power and pace effectively to bear down on goal and get in a number of shots and/or crosses per match. Now he just seems befuddled whenever he runs at the opposition defence. Physically, he seems fine. So one must assume that his dip in form can be attributed to some psychological block. I suppose MON persists in playing him (though not these last few matches) in the hopes that he’ll shake off the yips.

    To me, McClean seems like the sort of person who does well when he’s battling. He had to fight his way into the side last season, finally getting a chance under MON. Now, however, he has nothing to fight for.

    There’s very little competition for his spot, with Larsson seemingly only playing in the middle and Elmo out on loan. McClean needs his fighting spirit re-ignited. I know opinion is divided on him, but his loss of form is one of the biggest contributors to our struggles this season.

    (I will be fair to him here and acknowledge his three cup goals this season. Hmm… maybe we should stick Jimmy Mac in a drawer and just wheel him out a cup time. Something to think about…)

    Certainly another element of our poor run this season is how deep we’re playing. We aren’t even leaving Sess up for corners– and much as I rate him, what is five foot five Sess going to do against six foot five centre backs who’ve come up to attack in our box?

    It is incredibly frustrating to watch as the ball is passed between Cuellar, Gardner, Rose, Mig, etc with Fletcher standing (forlornly and bored, no doubt) all by himself up the pitch.

    MON said last week that he wants to see the rest of the squad following Danny Rose’s example, as in, carrying the ball up the pitch and attempting to get into the box. And occasionally we do: Cuellar, in particular will often take a journey into the attacking half. Someone has to, after all.

    To be fair, we did see this a bit more in the second half of the Norwich match, with both Rose and Bardo working hard to get forward and get crosses in.

    Bardsley is another player that divides opinion, but one of his great strengths is that he often wants to (and indeed does) get forward. He’s got that chutzpah we so often lack when Catts is missing.

    There are positives to be taken from this season. Fletcher is a big one. When he is provided with proper service, he scores goals. Our defence is generally solid ( a GD of -5 is respectable considering present position in the table). Mig’s form this year has exceeded most expectations; he’s earned us quite a few points. Sess has got his groove back, and is looking good as ever.

    I’m reminded of Jonathan Pearce’s words on MotD when we were away to Man City last March. We’d achieved safety, and had ‘nothing to play for,’ but as Pearce pointed out (and I paraphrase) ‘under O’Neill they always have something to play for.’ MON didn’t acquire the reputation of being a great man-manager by not being a great man-manager.

    Like all Sunderland supporters, I am disappointed, frustrated and confused at the start we’ve made to this season.

    Still, I can’t think of a better (realistic) manager to have than Martin O’Neill.

    We’ve seen the performances he’s capable of cajoling out of our players last season, and we have to trust that he is able to repeating those glorious days.

    For doubters, I’d suggest looking at Villa. Their supporters have been crowing across the various social media sites that they’d warned us; MON was no messiah. But are they really better off without him? They’ve just about limped to safety every season since MON left. Compared to the sixth place finishes and cup finals that they had under O’Neill, I’d merely chalk their ‘warnings’ up as bitterness at the manner in which he left that club.

    • William C December 4, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

      Jane, the problem is that if the results are to change, the tactics have got to change.Clearly, if something isn’t working you have to change it. I havn’t seen or heard anything that convinces me that O’Neill accepts that.

      At Villa, he had players who could exploit his preferred system of counter-attacking football. I don’t disagree that this can be a very effective style. Chelsea, under Mourinio operated it with great success and not a little flair. The difference is that they had the personnel who can operate it. Sunderland don’t.

      Given time, I concede that O’Neill might be able to recruit players to make it work. Trouble is we will be in the Championship by then. [ and anyway,he would be out of a job ]

      In my opinion, he needs to be pragmatic at the moment. We need to win some games whilst his re-building process takes place. To win games we need to be more offensive.

  6. Jeremy December 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    “There are positives to be taken from this season. Fletcher is a big one.”

    Tell us the second one…………………….

    • Goldy December 4, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

      The lager in the ground has improved.

    • vince December 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

      NUFC are cr@p too.

  7. Jeremy December 4, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    “The lager in the ground has improved.”

    Bugger! I missed out on that!

    • malcolm December 4, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

      They’ve also sorted out the litter problem!

  8. Ian_SAfc December 4, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    I think the question is: if he did go, who would we get instead ?
    The top, top managers, won’t probably come to Sunderland. MON is probably the best we can get. If Harry Redknapp was available, I’d like to see him in. Thats about the only person I’d exchange MON for. The likes of RDM, Martinez etc are not so attractive, and there’s no saying they’d turn the club around anyway.
    Look at the example of Hughes, Benitez, and even Redknapp’s lacklustre start confirms that simply changing manager doesn’t magically solve things.

    What we need is a decent midfield that can create and boss. Simple as that.
    Our back four is OK, Fletch and Sess are OK. We just need to create changes and boss midfield. Even if Jose Murinho came in, he’d still be stuck with our midfield.

  9. KenG December 4, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Initially I was reluctant to enter into this debate because all it seems to do is to heap pressure onto our manager and situation.

    Like Malcolm I’ve been supporting Sunderland since the 1964-5 season and sadly in that time roughly 65% of seasons have been relegation struggles, so what’s new?

    Martin O’Neill has ‘palmares’ the envy of most current managers;our stadium and academy are first-class and we have an owner who has consistently spent money as well as being a genuine fan.

    At the recently televised MK Dons v Wimbledon game I spotted a poster saying ‘Tough times come to an end,tough people keep on going ‘and this is the position we should take.We have to keep our nerve — we are not even in the bottom three yet but could be by Christmas.

    We have a squad superior to most Sunderland teams I’ve seen in my lifetime,and at times this season have played some good stuff.It’s true there’s been some dross and players are underperforming,but I don’t believe for one moment we should get rid of Martin O’Neill.

    Even at the end of the season were we to be relegated he would be the ideal manager to regroup and build his own team.

    If he does decide to resign or is sacked,who realistically could we expect to re-invigorate the club? O’Neill is still the man for the job and the fainthearts who talk about the worst squad and worst football clearly weren’t supporters in 1970,1986,2003, or 2006.

  10. Jeremy December 4, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    I admire you optimism and positive note here Ken, but “At the recently televised MK Dons v Wimbledon game I spotted a poster saying ‘Tough times come to an end,tough people keep on going ‘and this is the position we should take.We have to keep our nerve — we are not even in the bottom three yet but could be by Christmas.”

    Yes tough times come to an end but there may well be tougher times ahead if the corner is not turned soon. Expect us to be bottom by Christmas, a time which seperates the wheat from the chaff. Bottom at Christmas and you get relegated. With the exception of WBA who did the Houdini act once, the rule applies. Do we want to risk that? Will Ellis Short risk that? I doubt it.

    The same old names keep getting trotted out as a possible replacement. Whoever it is that keeps mentioning Alan bloody Curbishley needs to start reading this week’s papers and not those from 2006. Nobody would seriously suggest him as a manager at Sunderland. The bloke has been out of work for years and years and would struggle north of Watford Services.

    There is an inevitability to all of this and O’Neill is in the last chance saloon and sipping his last dregs of ale. The bar is closed and the lights are dimming. The question is whether he walks or whether Ellis shows him out first. I would desperately love to see him turn it around, but at the moment there is no evidence whatsoever that he has the tools and mentality to do so. Some changes need to be made and he hasn’t surrounded himself with the right calibre and set of characters to do this in two transfer windows. We are lacking in both quality and depth.

  11. Kev S December 4, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    The 1969/70 relegation team were pretty desperate (Colin Todd apart) yet still managed 6 wins. We’re now threatening to get less wins with a far better squad of players.

    For me there are two big issues – the system MO has persisted with so far, one man up front on his own like a hermit, will never work, yet he shows no signs of admitting to it or changing it. Secondly, the one player we needed more than any other last summer (and have needed for years) was a creative central midfield player. We bought everything else but. Despite the 45 minute purple patch at Norwich, I expect the problems to continue if neither of these issues are addressed.

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