Final hours of O’Neill’s Sunderland reign revealed

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill
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SUNDERLAND moved swiftly to remove Martin O’Neill as manager on Saturday night, but the manager moved swiftly himself to clear his desk once he was given the news.

Having left the Stadium of Light at 6pm oblivious of his fate, O’Neill received a phone call from Ellis Short shortly after 9pm to tell him he was being sacked.

And the Northern Irishman wasted no time in finalising the surprise separation.

Within the hour he was at the Academy of Light clearing his desk and was not at the club yesterday to say his farewells to the squad.

First-team coach Steve Walford and goalkeeping Seamus McDonagh are sure to follow him out of the door.

But it remains unclear whether they will stay for this week at least, while Paolo Di Canio acclimatises to his new job or whether they will leave with immediate effect.

Things have been tense at the highest level at Sunderland for weeks now, but when the parting of the ways came it was remarkable for its speed.

Owner Ellis Short has been unhappy with performances as well as results, but it was the January transfer window which perhaps was the catalyst for the manager’s removal.

The £5million spent on goalless striker Danny Graham, the £3.8m on Alfred N’Diaye – whose biggest headlines so far have been created by his £180,000 Bentley being towed away – and the non-playing Kader Mangane, deeply irritated the owner who was paying for the signings out of his own pocket.

He had hoped the £10m spent and the three players acquired would help boost his club into a top 10 finish to the season.

Instead they continued heading inexorably the other way with none of the new signings distinguishing themselves.

Like the rest of us, Short wanted the fairytale of the boyhood Sunderland fan and proven top-class manager restoring the Black Cats to the pinnacle of English football. And reluctant to blame his manager, he looked for other flaws in the system.

His eyes fell naturally on the scouting system and that will come under renewed scrutiny after the appointment of Di Canio last night. It is possible that the responsibility for recruiting new players will now be taken out of the head coach’s hands.

Elsewhere, Short look critically at Sunderland’s coaching staff and methods. Walford in particular came under the microscope with the decision taken to look at a root-and-branch overhaul in the summer.

That schedule was unexpectedly brought forward at the weekend when news filtered through to Short, who was in America rather than at the game, of Sunderland’s latest loss.

Sir Alex Ferguson stayed for a drink after Saturday’s game and O’Neill, who was met by his wife Geraldine shortly before leaving, departed the Stadium of Light shortly after 6pm with his mind still concentrating on the game itself and thoughts for the week ahead.

There was a suggestion that the owner had contemplated removing O’Neill in the wake of Sunderland’s limp performance against 10-man Norwich a fortnight previously. In the event, he stayed his hand.

But having absorbed the fact that Sunderland had not performed well yet again, it was probably the news coming in of Southampton and Wigan’s wins later that afternoon that finally convinced him that his patience with O’Neill was in danger of bordering on the negligent.

With so much money next season dependent on staying in the Premier League, with a new megabucks TV deal, Short made his decision.

It might have appeared knee-jerk but it had been on his mind for weeks.

It will be a surprise if O’Neill comes out and says anything publicly any time soon.

But the speed with which he left on Saturday night might suggest that he wants to put this episode in his career behind him as swiftly as possible.

He had wanted desperately to turn Sunderland into a top 10 club, and then a top six one.

But he has been in the business long enough to know that when you’re removed as manager, your first task should be to leave the stage as quickly, and with as much dignity, as possible.