Lethargic, boring displays cost O’Neill his job at Sunderland

Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill

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IN JUST over four years at the Sunderland helm, Ellis Short has enjoyed a crash course in English football’s managerial merry-go-round, writes Chris Young.

Four bosses have worked under Short’s stewardship during that relatively brief tenure, yet the announcement which revealed the axe being wielded on Martin O’Neill last night was the first which genuinely left Wearside staggered.

Roy Keane threw the toys out of the pram before his departure was confirmed, the manager’s office was clearly a place Ricky Sbragia didn’t want to occupy and the fury on the terraces in the final days of Steve Bruce’s reign made his sacking inevitable.

But there were no genuine signs that O’Neill’s days were numbered.

Just three weeks ago at Loftus Road, Short had fumed in the directors box at seeing the latest demands on his bank balance surrender so meekly.

Yet Short remained resolute in his support of the man in the dug-out.

The pair were potentially heading for a collision course in the summer, with Short subjecting his investment to increasing scrutiny and O’Neill wanting to make wholesale changes to stamp his mark on a side that has suffered relegation fears for the last two years.

But unless Sunderland suffered the ignominy of the drop or the transfer discussions created an unhealable rift, O’Neill looked assured of remaining in charge.

Perhaps the chop shouldn’t come as such a surprise though.

A return of just three points out of a possible 24 makes grim reading.

The prospect of relegation is understandably an unthinkable one for Short and by the week, Sunderland have looked more and more likely to be occupying one of those bottom three places come tea-time on May 19.

O’Neill’s January buys have prompted severe scrutiny too - both Danny Graham and Alfred N’Diaye struggling to make an impression, while Kader Mangane has taken on a Lord Lucan persona, other than a brace of outings for the Under-21s.

And with growing whispers of discontent in the dressing room, together with the poor body language of several under-performing players, the decision looks more and more logical.

Short, who was NOT at the Stadium of Light yesterday, clearly felt he was left with no other alternative.

There will be few Sunderland supporters cheering O’Neill’s departure though.

A widespread feeling of good-will extended to the boyhood Sunderland fan on Wearside and it has been telling that the crowd has never turned against a manager who held genuine hope of turning this club into the one he longed for it to be.

“A top six club, without a top six team,” was one of O’Neill’s favourite phrases to describe the Black Cats.

Initially, it looked as if O’Neill could work the magic honed at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa on Sunderland after a stunning opening four months which saw relegation fears vanquished and FA Cup dreams materialise.

But ever since that cup quarter-final replay defeat to Everton last March, Sunderland have been flat and stale.

Last season ended with a whimper and that air of lethargy, bordering on boredom, rolled over into the current campaign and has dominated it.

Other than a couple of highs against Manchester City, West Ham and at Wigan, there have been precious few moments to get bums off seats, particularly at the Stadium of Light.

Theories have abounded over recent weeks that O’Neill wasn’t the manager of old and wasn’t the same without right-hand man John Robertson. There is probably substance to both.

But sacking O’Neill at this delicate juncture of the campaign is the most staggering aspect of Short’s decision to relieve him of his duties.

Even if it had been done a fortnight ago after the Norwich fiasco, there would have been a touch more understanding.

Whether his successor is a short-term troubleshooter or a long-term solution, a meager seven games of a generally arduous nature is not a particularly attractive proposition.

All Short can hope is that they produce a reaction among the players akin to when the manager he has just sacked was appointed.