Did Martin O'Neill deserve to be sacked? photo: dalli58

Sunderland will pay the price for O’Neill sacking

The sacking of Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill typifies the difficulty of the climate that football managers are forced to work in. But were Sunderland justified in giving O’Neill the sack?

Eight Premier League matches without a win, with five of those being at home, had the Black Cats flirting with relegation: the owners will argue that their hand was forced.

However, sacking O’Neill at this stage in the season was the worst possible move the owners could have made.

It may be argued that the 61-year-old deserved more due to his extensive experience in improving top-level British sides. However, others believe that O’Neill has been over-rated by the British media.

Previous successes with Leicester City, Celtic and latterly Aston Villa had many fans arguing he was one of the best managers in the country. Indeed, after the departure of Sven=Goran Eriksson in 2006, many believed him to be the ideal candidate to replace the Swede as England manager.

However, although O’Neill is a good manager, he has always struggled to move teams forward to the so called ‘next level’ in the Premier League.

At Leicester City, although winning the League Cup twice, in three seasons his side finished 10th, ninth and eighth in the Premier League table. Likewise, although his spell at Aston Villa lifted the team from 16th place in 2005/6 to a peak of sixth place for three consecutive seasons, O’Neill had chances to lift Villa even higher into the esteemed Champions League places.

In 2007/8 for example, Villa lost a seven-point lead above Arsenal, embarking on a woeful ten-match winless streak which pushed them out of the top four.

A top-four finish could have provided Villa with the funds necessary to compete at the highest level for seasons to come. Instead, O’Neill missed several opportunities to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition and resigned in 2010. Whilst his achievements were remarkable, O’Neill will be remembered for near misses rather than actual accolades.

Nevertheless, O’Neill was – and still is – the best man for the job of steering the Black Cats clear of relegation.

With Aston Villa, Stoke City and Wigan Athletic all suffering similar crises, O’Neill’s extensive experience would have steered the Black Cats away from the bottom three, especially with key fixtures against Villa and Stoke in the coming weeks.

O’Neill lifted Sunderland away from trouble last year after Steve Bruce was dismissed, and with time and funding he could have moved the club into mid-table stability – possibly even the European places – in the next few years.

Instead, chairman Ellis Short opted for a short-term solution. The vigour and charisma a new manager brings to the team may indeed help Sunderland avoid the drop; however, what happens when this initial spark is extinguished? Sunderland will be in exactly the same situation they are in now next season, unless the controversial and comparatively unproven Paolo Di Canio can perform miracles.

A combination of experience and knowing the team you are working with is hugely beneficial when gritting through a relegation scrap, and ensuring your team avoids the same situation in the future. Di Canio will be starting from scratch, he will have to learn the team incredibly quickly and work twice as hard to learn the mistakes of O’Neill in order to avoid a repeat of this season’s events.

Appointing a new manager in the final weeks of the season is akin to replacing a general before the war. A new face at the helm is not what Sunderland needed at this stage, but time will tell if Sunderland avoid the drop and can steer clear of trouble next season.

However, chairman Ellis Short has only made the situation harder for The Black Cats, and if they do avoid the drop, they could be struggling to claw away from relegation in seasons to come. O’Neill has paid the price for Sunderland’s short-term approach; could the club suffer similar damage in the long-term?

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