O'Neill tasked to save Sunderland
Martin O'Neill at least knows now what he's signed up for.
Sunderland's new manager sat in the stand at Molineux on Sunday, before formally taking over on Monday, and watched his new side give a case study in their inadequacies in losing 2-1 to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
There was much that looked good: some neat passing in midfield, a couple of exhilarating counterattacks, and an opening goal that featured a backheel flick from Nicklas Bendtner, an intelligent run and lay off from Stephane Sessegnon and a ferocious first-time finish from Keiran Richardson. With 20 minutes to go, Sunderland led 1-0 and looked set for a creditable away win.
Then it won a penalty: a chance to seal the win, but Sebastian Larsson missed. Within seconds Steven Fletcher had headed Wolves level. Ten minutes from time, Fletcher scored again. He was offside as Adam Hammill's cross came into the box, but onside as Jamie O'Hara laid the ball off to him, seemingly with his arm. And, in injury time, as a free-kick was swung to Ahmed Elmohamady on the right side of the box, the offside flag went up at the other end. Although others were off, the Egyptian was actually well onside as he rolled the ball square to Bendtner who would have had a tap-in; two linesmen applying wholly varying interpretations of the offside law.
Still, it was as good an encapsulation of Sunderland's problems as O'Neill is likely to find. This season the team has been hapless, prone to self-destruction and unlucky. There is an ongoing weakness late in games, whether physical or mental, that Steve Bruce, who left the club last week, never addressed: Sunderland dropped nine points in the final 10 minutes of games last season -- more than any other side; this season already three winners have been conceded after the 80th minute.
Sessegnon and Larsson flicker at times, but there is a dreadful lack of incisiveness through the middle. Ji Dong-Won, in his first Premier League start, struggled to get into the game, while Bendtner was as frustrating as ever, playing like a parody of Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- all self-indulgence and bad decisions.
Sunderland isn't that far from being a reasonable side, something reflected in the fact it has the best goal-difference in the bottom half of the Premier League table. Given the departures of Kenwyne Jones, Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan and the injuries to Connor Wickham and Fraizer Campbell, the lack of cutting edge is understandable. The soft errors are probably the result of a lack of confidence as much as anything else and it is that aspect that O'Neill may be able to address swiftly.
His record alone should inspire confidence: in five years at Leicester City, he won two league Cups while the club never finished below 10th in the table. He won three Scottish titles and got to the finals of the Uefa Cup with Celtic. Even at Aston Villa he finished sixth three years in a row. The fact he is such an engaging and obviously intelligent figure should re-energize an increasingly cynical crowd worn down by a record of just two home wins in 2011. It helps too, of course, that he was a boyhood Sunderland fan, inspired by the exploits of Sunderland's majestic Irish center-half of the late fifties and early sixties, Charlie Hurley (not that Bruce's Newcastle connections were ever such a big deal as some have made out: yes, when fans finally turned on him, his "geordieness" was a stick used to beat him, but there is a statue of the Geordie Bob Stokoe outside the Stadium of Light; results matter far more than heritage).
O'Neill, it has been widely reported, has been offered significant money to spend, which is as good an example of the problems of soccer club finance as you're likely to find. One of the fallacies of the Bruce reign was that he'd "had money to spend." Well, yes he did, and the squad he had at the end was shaped by him. But it's not quite as simple as that. In his two-and-half years in charge, Bruce brought in 25 players and offloaded 31 at a net cost (using the headline figures only) of £8.5 million ($13M).
In the last 18 months of his reign, meanwhile, his transfer spending showed a net profit of £18 million ($28M) and there was a fairly obvious effort to reduce the wage bill -- which is why Boudewijn Zenden and Steed Malbranque, both of them signed on high salaries during the time of plenty were released on free transfers in the summer. That may have frustrated fans -- and Bruce, although he never admitted as much in public -- but it was probably necessary after the profligacy of the Roy Keane years, when vast numbers of players were brought in at great expense, many of them rapidly forgotten.
The problem is that that process of retrenchment ended up destabilizing the team. The consequences of relegation would be dire, and so Bruce was sacked and O'Neill appointed, with a promise of a transfer budget, in order to give Sunderland the best possible chance of staying up. So, the spending cuts have actually led indirectly to increased spending to stave off the savage cuts that would have to follow Sunderland going down. Although the club's chairman and owner, Ellis Short, will surely place tighter restrictions on wages than before, that, allied to Bruce's payoff, probably means Sunderland will end the season in a worse position financially than they were when the cutbacks began two years ago. That is a particular concern given O'Neill had a reputation at Celtic and Aston Villa for lumbering the club with average players on far from average wages.
In November 2010, Sunderland won 3-0 away to Chelsea in what was probably its best performance for a decade. It was the centerpiece of an excellent start to last season that led to Sunderland finishing 10th -- its third-best position in half a century, despite losing form utterly in the new year. It was that game, more than anything else, that led to the heightened expectations of which Bruce complained this season.
Yet since then, that side has been scattered. The loan players Danny Welbeck and Nedum Onuoha have returned to their parent clubs. Asamoah Gyan has been loaned to Al-Ain. Zenden has been released. Jordan Henderson has been sold to Liverpool. Craig Gordon has suffered a string of injuries. Titus Bramble is facing two charges of sexual assault. Of the 18 players in the squad that day, only four were available to Sunderland's caretaker manager Eric Black on Sunday (with two further players injured, two out on loan, and Bramble conceivably able to return).
That game now stands as Sunderland's Pisgah Heights, the moment at which, after years in the wilderness, they gazed on a far brighter future, only to find it, for a whole series of reasons, denied them.
There has been much talk of top-half finishes, and Sunderland are both the seventh-most successful side in English history and the seventh best-supported team in the Premier League. However, Sunderland has managed that only three times in 50 years, and given the situation and the club's finances in which O'Neill takes over, the only aim this season is staying up.