Sunderland fans would have been fearing the worst when the Wearside club had only amassed 11 points from 13 games in the Premier League and were sitting at a dismal 16th after a disappointing 2-1 loss at home to bottom side Wigan. With these results Steve Bruce became Managerial causality number one.
With frustration growing now was time for radical changes. On the 3rd of December Sunderland unveiled their new manager, boyhood fan, Martin O’Neill. The ex-Aston Villa manager had a great reputation for building spirited teams at Leicester, Celtic and recently Aston Villa. Now, after 12 games at the helm, he has lifted his side to 8th on the table with 33 points and into the Fourth round of the F.A Cup. O’Neill’s record speaks for itself with 8 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. The most notable of these coming against league leaders Manchester City at the stadium of Light when summer signing Dong-Wong Ji scored in the dying seconds to give Sunderland a famous 1-0 win.
The Northern Irishman’s players are full of praise for the way their new manager has boosted their confidence. James McClean, the exciting young left winger bought from Derry City by Bruce, who had appeared to have been forgotten about until O’Neill threw him into the first team, describes the change. “The new manager’s lifted everyone around the club,” the £350,000 signing says. “He’s given us a new lease of life. He’s a remarkable man.”
The 59-year-old has also been hailed for his man-management skills. Suddenly Lee Cattermole, the less than innocent captain, resembles the midfielder Liverpool once sought after, rather than a bad-tackling, booking prone liability. “The gaffer has taken all the players to one side, put his arm round each of us and made us feel good about ourselves again,” says Cattermole. “He’s very intelligent and passionate”. Another player who has been pivotal under O’Neill is the gifted attacking midfielder, Stephane Sessegnon. The ex-PSG man is someone O’Neill and his assistant, Steve Walford, hone in training.
With this being said, most Sunderland supporters are wondering how O’Neill could have handled the Asamoah Gyan situation. A player last season who dazzled and danced his way into the hearts of the Sunderland faithful, before he abruptly left on a season-long loan spell at UAE club Al Ain at the start of this year’s campaign, when Bruce was in charge. With reports claiming he’s ruled out a return to the Black Cats, the Wearside club’s fans believe their new gaffer can convince Gyan otherwise.
Being big on loyalty, he hopes his players will repay him by raising their collective bar. A manager who says that his long-term goal is to see Sunderland performing in the manner of Barcelona re-assesses Bruce’s allegation that Wearside fans are unrealistically demanding, reinforcing his faith in the squad. “I don’t have a problem with expectations,” he says, firmly. “A club of Sunderland’s calibre should have ambition.”
In Martin O’Neill, Sunderland has a determined and efficient manager who’s brought a new spirit to the club, someone who’s ready to endear himself into the hearts of all Sunderland fans and most of all a manager who has strong ambitions for the future.