James Lawton: O'Neill has Sunderland believing -- could United be next?
Published 06/01/2012 | 05:00
Sometimes the best comes last and with it that knowledge of what is most important about what you do. Certainly it is tempting to believe this could just be true in the case of Martin O'Neill as he contemplates his 60th birthday in March.
The initial burst of his work at Sunderland's Stadium of Light hardly discourages the idea.
Indeed, if you wanted a dramatic contrast in mood this week you didn't have to stray beyond the Ulsterman's new north-eastern bailiwick.
In Newcastle, Alex Ferguson, the man whose job many have seen for so long as a natural fit for O'Neill, has rarely looked so disconsolate. Cut apart by a Newcastle United team widely believed to be in disarray, Ferguson's Manchester United were shorn of the competitive character that has always been the most basic achievement of their manager.
If United's players, and not least a disgraced Wayne Rooney, who was called from the field near the end, were looking for any fresh reproach they had only to glance at the performance of Sunderland at Wigan.
It was filled with the essential element of any winning team of any skill level: a passionate commitment to the challenge in front of them at any time.
Ferguson declared that it wasn't time to panic. But perhaps feel the odd icy finger of despair.
O'Neill spoke of his joy to be at a club he had always held in a corner of his heart. At Sunderland, the revival of a team which by the end of last season was showing, under Steve Bruce, the plainest evidence of terminal decline, is remarkable even after feeding in the old football truth that the mere presence of a new manager, given his ability to command a degree of instant respect, is more or less guaranteed to have a galvanising effect.
However, it's as though O'Neill's 16-month absence from the game has returned him to the pinnacle of those powers first transmitted by his ultimate mentor Brian Clough.
Chief among these is the ability to make players believe they can indeed become part of the team they have been entrusted to help shape. When Clough was fired at Derby County, his disciple-players found an axe and threatened to smash down the door of the boardroom.
There have been at least echoes of such commitment in the performances which have seen Sunderland -- the winners of just five out of a possible 18 points before O'Neill's arrival -- leap into the top half of the league with four wins and a draw from six games.
"The most crucial job of a manager," says O'Neill, "is to inspire the players to show the best, to remind them of the qualities that first made them professionals. Pride is quite a big part of this."
The formula certainly seems to have brought an instant dividend in his approach to Titus Bramble, the hugely experienced but in many eyes discredited defender, the untried Irishman James McClean and a suddenly besieged Lee Cattermole.
The combative Cattermole might have expected a rough ride from a manager of ferocious principle when he was arrested on suspicion of damaging cars. Instead, he received a public embrace -- a dramatic reversal of a discouraging trend that developed in the last days of Bruce.
Before his injury, Bramble also looked like a man who had regained the point of what he was doing.
Having paid more than £300,000 for Derry man McClean, Bruce announced that he was one for the future. O'Neill took one look at him and announced that the future was now.
Against Wigan, McClean played with a bite and an authority that was stunning in someone so new to the Premier League big-time.
Of course, such momentum can't be guaranteed.
It could be that already O'Neill has identified certain weaknesses and he will not be reluctant to point them out to his new American owner Ellis Short.
However, O'Neill is enough of a politician to avoid any precipitous moves that might endanger the current surge of well-being.
When he broke with another American investor in English football, Aston Villa's Randy Lerner, it was in the belief that vital progress was being lost through a failure to significantly re-seed a team that needed a fresh injection of talent and proven achievement.
Such an argument at the Stadium of Light can, you have to believe, comfortably await the close season.
By then, O'Neill will have sifted short-term reactions to a new challenge, and new leadership, from clear evidence that certain players have the right levels of self-confidence and talent to help form a successful future.
For the moment O'Neill, as Clough was all those years ago, is happy that his players have responded to some of the most fundamental demands on a winning team.
A side that quite recently was offering itself not just to defeat but the most dispiriting exposure as unfit for purpose appears to be not just reanimated but reborn.
It's one of the toughest tricks in football and O'Neill, once more, has revealed it to be his stock in trade.
Where this will take him in the final phase of his career is not the least fascination of the new football landscape.
First Celtic, then Villa seemed to be the battlegrounds on which O'Neill would define his reputation as a passionate football man.
Now there is a bracing symmetry in the fact that O'Neill has found a challenge at the club which, as a boy, he revered along with its Irish Cork-born superstar Charlie Hurley.
Plainly it could be his last, even if it is also true that he has surely represented his credentials to a Manchester United who now must be worrying about Ferguson's long-term ability to deal comfortably with changing times, and resources.
If this is O'Neill's last stand as a front-rank manager he could not have made a more promising start. It is one which has reannounced the basis of all great managerial careers.
This is the ability to lift players to new levels of confidence in their own ability. It's the knack of making them believe.