O’Neill impresses in first Sunderland press conference

RINGING THE CHANGES ... Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill.
RINGING THE CHANGES ... Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill.
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FACED with a lightning strike of flash bulbs, Martin O’Neill sat in stationary solitude at the front of the Stadium of Light’s Riverview Suite.

In the room where predecessor and fellow A List name Roy Keane was presented as Black Cats boss, the newly-unveiled O’Neill showed little of the animation which will become part of his routine in the Sunderland dug-out.

It prompted calls of “Smile please, Martin” from the blood-thirsty pack of photographers, to which O’Neill responded with a wry grin and the reply of: “This is the best I can muster”.

The assembled hacks chuckled at the display of dark humour from a manager renowned for his charm and O’Neill continued to captivate through the remaining two hours in which he addressed television, radio and print media.

O’Neill rarely raised his voice and although there was the odd quip, the 59-year-old centred on his remit on Wearside rather than trying to entertain (as was often the case with Steve Bruce).

But listening to O’Neill unveil his blueprint for Sunderland’s success, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that here was a manager with sufficient grey matter to transform an ailing and stagnant club.

An eloquent and articulate speaker, O’Neill addressed those assembled with intelligence and gravity, without relying on clichés of Sunderland being a silent giant, in a region renowned for its passion etc.

The former Aston Villa and Celtic boss took those perhaps truthful sentiments as a given and refused to patronise supporters with false promises – admitting that Sunderland were in a “little bit of trouble” after taking just 11 points from the opening 14 games of the campaign.

O’Neill conceded the evident flaws in Sunderland’s game at present, both a lack of goals and lack of confidence, and realised they needed to be eradicated sooner rather than later.

Neither did O’Neill delude himself into thinking he would receive special favours on the terraces for his boyhood allegiance to Sunderland.

O’Neill referred to how Charlie Hurley led him to support Sunderland as his second team behind Celtic and how he had received a good-luck message from the legendary centre-half, but then tried to play down the emotional attachment.

Yet it was clear that O’Neill was enthused about the prospect of working at the club of his County Londonderry adolescence.

“I don’t really want to make too much of it, but I was a genuine supporter.” he said.

“I remember a lot of times which were great supporting the team. It is a great football club, a fantastic club.

“I think there is an energy about this club and very obviously a passion which is something, with determination, I am hoping will give us that lift.

“It is a genuine privileged to be here. It really is a fantastic club and it is an honour.

“I am hoping the day I leave it has been worthwhile. I am so energised about it that it is hard to describe.”

What came across more than anything was O’Neill’s burning passion for the job ahead of him, which clearly simmered under his mild-mannered exterior.

He didn’t strike the familiar chord of a fly-by-night manager, who produces the popular sound-bites before leaving 18 months down the line with the club no further forward in his progress.

Like his man-management, O’Neill’s words inspired confidence. Every musing was well thought-out, every phrase chosen deliberately.

In terms of fireworks, there was perhaps no explosive message of European adventures or silverware.

Yet that would have been pre-emptive. Given Sunderland’s current woes, O’Neill has to focus on the short-term and he inspired confidence that he will exude confidence to those under his wing.

The fireworks can wait for the dressing room and the training field anyway.

When facing the press, O’Neill can do little more than to inform and procrastinate with evident competency of his thoughts on the club he seems made-to-measure for.

If those beliefs are transformed into tangible success, then O’Neill will have a reason to smile for the camera.