Martin O’Neill was a winner for Sunderland’s charities

Sunderland Manager Martin O'Neill opens the new Chemotherapy Day Unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

Sunderland Manager Martin O'Neill opens the new Chemotherapy Day Unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

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EX-BOSS O’Neill may have struggled to make an impact on the pitch, but his charity work off it quickly won him praise on Wearside.

The dad-of-two immersed himself in helping others and was a keen advocate of SAFC’s Foundation of Light.

But it was raising awareness of the devastating effects of cancer that he felt a personal connection to.

Just weeks before his departure from the Stadium of Light, O’Neill was asked to open the new chemotherapy unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

It was during this visit that the 51-year-old spoke of his wife Geraldine’s fight with Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

It was in the middle of her illness that O’Neill first turned down the chance to manage Sunderland, the club he had supported as a boy.

He said: “In 2004, my wife was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She went through chemotherapy which didn’t appear to work and so, in 2005, she went on to have stem cell treatment. She is still fighting on.

“Sometimes you get on with life without ever actually seeing what is happening in your own life. When you get a chance to speak to people who are having chemotherapy, it makes you realise what’s important in life.”

O’Neill’s visit won him praise from Sunderland Royal Hospital chief executive Ken Bremner.

He said: “He came here after talking to players who earn £40,000 a week to spending some personal time with our patients, sharing their problems. He is a great ambassador for football.”

O’Neill also devoted a lot of time to raising awareness about the Foundation of Light which, through football, supports families across Sunderland.

He said: “The Foundation has done some absolutely fantastic work within the community and it has some amazing supporters who are instrumental in helping it achieve its goals.”

Awarded an OBE for services to sport in 2004, during his time on Wearside, O’Neill also made time to join other Premiership managers in raising the profile of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.

Last year, the Irishman was guest of honour at a charity fund-raiser at Rainton Meadows Arena, Houghton, where he helped raise thousands of pounds in Sir Bobby’s memory.

O’Neill joined impressionist Bobby Davro and ex-football player, manager and pundit Ron Atkinson at the dinner.

Twitter: @craigjourno