Wednesday 21 March 2018

Is Martin O'Neill the Manchester United manager in waiting?

O’Neill’s remarkable impact at Sunderland has catapulted him ahead of Mourinho to top of list as man to replace Ferguson

Martin O'Neill has changed the course of Sunderland's season since taking over at the Stadium of Light
Martin O'Neill has changed the course of Sunderland's season since taking over at the Stadium of Light
James Lawton

James Lawton

Martin O'Neill has always displayed a formidable array of personal assets, but at 59 -- and just a month away from one those birthdays guaranteed to make a man think about the future -- he has unfurled one that might just come to define his entire career.

It is the one that was the jewel in the crown of the late Frank Sinatra, something he polished so resolutely that every rival acknowledged he was the 'chairman of the board'. Sinatra had timing, oodles of it, and it left him clear of his field.

O'Neill may not be able to claim quite such distinction, but another victory for his new club Sunderland this week surely re-enforced the view that he may well have made one of the most perfectly judged comebacks in the history of the game.


It is as though all the strengths of those years of campaigning, the feisty attitudes and the soaring passions have not only been reconfirmed but also, at maybe the last time of asking, been given a vital injection of fresh enthusiasm and new certainties.

O'Neill, more than ever, looks like the old, knowing hand -- but one still ambitious enough and, crucially, still young enough, to make a final statement about his place in the football of his times. What, for example, could be more eloquent than the significant reviving of a club for whom he has always had affection -- and one last move, the one for which for so long he has been measured?

Yes, Manchester United, the great club who may not be counting the days or months to Alex Ferguson's decision to step back from the battlefield but, inevitably, have noted the impact of O'Neill at the Stadium of Light.

The rocketing progress from the relegation zone to eighth place in the Premier League, the surge of confidence in a squad who not so long ago looked like a group of dead men walking, the 19 points from 27, have, after all, been hard to miss.

But there is another element. It is the sense of a man who has reached a point where all his instincts, and priorities, seem to have come together to create a brilliant force.

O'Neill is plainly having the time of his life; indeed, his enjoyment seems be flowing from his understanding that the next few years are potentially precisely this -- the time when his touch, and his authority, have never been so sure.

Certainly it is impossible to detach him from the biggest question in Premier League football: the Ferguson succession.

Up until the last year or so the question had ceased to be a matter of debate in the corridors of Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho had only to raise his finger and the job was his. And why not?

Who could not be overwhelmed by the credentials of the great accumulator of trophies, who for all his difficulties with Barcelona has even now established with Real Madrid a firm grip in the race for the Spanish title?

This success would give him a fabled Grand Slam of national titles in England, Italy and Spain -- a man for all seasons, and all terrain, without question. Should he capture the Champions League with Real -- a quite realistic possibility -- he would become only the third man to win the European title with three clubs.

So why would anyone float even the reincarnated O'Neill as a serious rival to the man who has once again fluttered his eyelashes at the Premier League against the background of increased speculation that he is bound, come what may, to leave Madrid at the end of the season? It is because at a certain point in his turbulent reign at the Bernabeu, Mourinho made himself persona non grata at Old Trafford.

His behaviour had become just a little too extreme; if Ferguson has never been shy of confrontation, and self-justification, Mourinho had been deemed to have gone beyond all reasonable bounds under the pressure of the Barca rivalry.

Yet if Mourinho's behaviour was shocking, not least in his altercation with one of Barcelona's assistant coaches, and even if the great Real icon Alfredo di Stefano was among the fiercest of his critics, he was still inevitably mesmerising when he announced his desire to return to English football next season.

Some of his senior players, most notably goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas, may have declared open warfare with their coach, but the dynamics of a winning team remain in place.

When Mourinho made his latest overtures about a return to England, and never more explicitly, there had to be four interested parties, however much agonising might have been involved.

Liverpool's American ownership, while mindful of the huge bond between Kenny Dalglish and the fans, are also watching the development of the team with some concern, despite success in the FA and Carling Cups. Would Mourinho not represent new certainties of success at Anfield?

Arsenal continue to slide away from the elite of English football and if Mourinho could never be expected to produce the sublime football of Arsene Wenger at his zenith, he could be relied upon to produce the panacea of some kind of success for first time since 2005.

Chelsea have plenty of reasons to regret their parting with Mourinho -- and they have never been keener than in these last few months as young Andre Villas-Boas fights so desperately to make some kind of convincing impact.

The word from Stamford Bridge is that the old alliance between owner Roman Abramovich and Mourinho is not likely to be resumed any time soon, which leaves the reaction at Old Trafford the most intriguing. Could it be that the old priority of continuing success might again come to push aside any concern over the possibility of diminished dignity?

There is one certainty, however. It is that after a fallow year, Martin O'Neill has done rather more than merely re-announce his presence as a leading figure in the English game. He has, whether he likes it or not, effectively re-applied for the biggest job of them all.

Irish Independent

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