MARTIN O’NEILL is likely to make another attempt to bring his long-time assistant John Robertson to Wearside if the Sunderland boss is forced into backroom changes this summer.
But if Robertson continues to say no to a return to football, the Black Cats’ boss could turn to his former reserve-team coach at Aston Villa, Kevin McDonald, who left his job at Villa Park several weeks ago in the wake of Paul Lambert taking over from Alex McLeish.
Former Black Cats’ manager Steve Bruce’s appointment as Hull City chief is expected to pave the way for current Sunderland reserve team coach Keith Bertschin and his assistant Steven Clemence to join him, with the Tynesider paving the way yesterday with the release of the Tigers’ first-team coaches Steve Wigley and Stuart Watkiss.
Should, as expected, Bertschin and Clemence go, that would create vacancies in the Sunderland set-up, and O’Neill would be keen to install tried-and-tested lieutenants he has worked with at formed clubs such as Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa.
When O’Neill took over the reins at the Stadium of Light in December he brought with him first-team coach Steve Walford, goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh and fitness coach Jim Henry – all men he had worked with previously.
But the glaring omission was that of his old Nottingham Forest team-mate Robertson (right), who has spent the last 20 years as O’Neill’s assistant and right-hand man.
Robertson lives in the Midlands and was understood to be unwilling to relocate and there was also the suggestion that the 59-year-old was simply tired of football and wanted time out of the game.
But O’Neill has pointedly never ruled out the Scot joining him at Sunderland and the two have remained in contact.
Weeks after taking over, O’Neill said: “John can’t come up at the moment, so I’m happy to go along with the staff I have.
“It may be a possibility in the future – I haven’t pushed it though.
“At the moment, he can’t make it for personal and family reasons and I obviously understand that.
“It’s a shame because I would have liked to have him here, because he would have given something to the spirit of the team.”
While Robertson has not been involved on the training ground at Sunderland he has been to watch a number of Black Cats games.
He was at Sunderland’s defeat at West Brom in April along with Liam O’Kane and Ian Storey-Moore – two more of O’Neill’s old Aston Villa backroom team who could also join Sunderland’s scouting operation in the future. Steve Guppy is a specialist coach O’Neill has used who could be given a greater role.
And then of course there is McDonald, who worked closely alongside O’Neill at Villa Park before taking over briefly as caretaker boss after the Irishman’s surprise departure on the eve of the 2010-11 season.