Martin O’Neill walked into Sunderland this week with a blend of calmness and confidence that only a son of the late Brian Clough could pull off. It took O’Neill just seconds after entering the club to make it seem like he had been there for an eternity.
O’Neill has a habit of walking into a club and motivating everyone from the tea lady to the highest paid player into believing that “this is a fantastic club and I want to be here.”
The immediate threat that O’Neill must deal with is that of relegation. Losing top flight status (especially in England) is catastrophic for some clubs with a select few not making it back for decades.
The Stadium of Light must be turned into a fortress before anything else happens. It’s absolutely vital that in the early days of Martin O’Neill’s reign as the Black Cats boss, he can galvanize the home crowd and make teams fear the trip to the north-east. He had some fantastic home records at both Celtic and Leicester with home victories forming the basis of much of his managerial success.
Despite the immediate threat I see no reason to doubt Sunderland’s long term place in the Premier League. I would even go as far to say that its a foregone conclusion that O’Neill will keep them up and quite comfortably. So what does the real future hold for Sunderland under the Northern Irishman?
In O’Neill’s last full season at Aston Villa, the end of the 09/10 season. He took them to their highest points tally since 1993 as well as a Carling Cup Final and an FA Cup Semi. An impressive season and one of Villa’s best seasons in recent memory.
Like Villa, Sunderland are an established top flight team in a good part of the country and a healthy home support. O’Neill is also a man who doesn’t like to rest on his laurels, there is no way he would have taken the Sunderland role if he wasn’t promised a budget to improve upon the squad for the next few seasons.
But even before the transfer window opens I wouldn’t be at all surprised if O’Neill can improve a player like Bendtner the same way he did for Sutton at Celtic and Heskey at Villa. Players who both lacked real confidence and were by all accounts ‘finished’ before finding their feet and excelling under the tutelage of O’Neill.
However, the Premier League is a very different beast now to what it was a few seasons ago. Man City have come from no where and along with Tottenham have rocked the big four stranglehold that existed when O’Neill was at Villa. On paper it looks difficult to replicate the success O’Neill had at the midlands club.
But Tottenham in particular are proving to be a great role model for the rest of the league. They’ve broken up the monopoly without the need for shedding hundreds of million. They have shown that you don’t need unlimited funds in order to make an impact. Its something I’m sure O’Neill has looked at as a blueprint for the way he wants Sunderland to progress up the league.
If Harry can get Tottenham challenging on a regular basis for the Champions League then theres no reason O’Neill can’t do the same with Sunderland. It goes without saying that getting Sunderland to the Champions League will take a bit of time, planning and obviously more than a fair share of luck. But consider it was only a couple of years ago that Harry Redknapp picked Tottenham up in a similar position to how O’Neill finds himself going into Sunderland. Understand Tottenham’s journey in the last few years things suddenly begin to become achievable for Sunderland.
O’Neill starts his reign at Sunderland this Sunday with a home match against struggling Blackburn. The way the fixtures have worked, you really couldn’t have asked for a better game to start with. But more importantly it’s a great way to for the fans to believe in O’Neill and what he’ll be trying to achieve.
O’Neill spoke at length during his conference about bringing Sunderland “..back to greatness.” Looking at O’Neill’s past track record and his confidence going forward, I see no reason to doubt him. There is every chance that he could go on to be the greatest appointment Sunderland have ever made.
By Craig Shields. Craig can be found on Twitter @Craig_J_Shields.