Saturday 16 December 2017

O'Neill's powers of persuasion can be effective at Sunderland

A smart operator, Martin O'Neill could inspire the Black Cats, says Kevin McCarra

Martin O'Neill has great intensity and can often use that to inspire his team, but there is also a keen and calculating mind at work
Martin O'Neill has great intensity and can often use that to inspire his team, but there is also a keen and calculating mind at work

Kevin McCarra

Martin O'Neill is heading for exactly the right place. Should he become manager at Sunderland, the affinity with the crowd will be perfect and the bond is likely to be durable so long as results are in keeping with a club of some standing.

O'Neill undoubtedly has the populist touch but that would not suffice to ensure that he is still an appealing candidate.

There is a shrewdness to him. When he was appointed to the post of Celtic manager in 2000, O'Neill referred to the fact that his father had told him he should be willing to walk to Glasgow if the job was ever offered to him. No one doubts the truth of the reminiscences but O'Neill has often thrived because he is astute in his calculation of the circumstances around him.

In Glasgow, he addressed the crowd before his first game at home. The fans roared in delirium, yet O'Neill had been careful with his pledges. He simply said he would do everything in his power to bring success to the club. Anyone would be obliged to say as much but O'Neill's words seemed charged with an intent that registered with those fans.

The intensity that he brings to his work is one of the keys. It is aided by the fact that he can stay a little apart from his players. There are many photographs of O'Neill in a tracksuit but he seems to appreciate that keeping just the right distance from the squad helps in galvanising them. In his best times those footballers have gone to extraordinary levels to earn his approval.

He learned his trade in a manner now inconceivable for a person accomplished enough to collect 64 caps and captain Northern Ireland to the quarter-final of the 1982 World Cup. This was far from being a guarantee that O'Neill would be feted in due course, as chairmen pleaded for him to become manager of their club.

O'Neill's career reflects its grounding. He did not merely sample management at Wycombe Wanderers but spent five years there that took the club into the Football League. There was a patience to O'Neill then, as he persevered in making his name, but that did not stop him from becoming ever clearer about his ambitions.

Confrontation is not a preferred method. O'Neill can usually assume power within a club because the directors are entranced. A member of the Celtic board recalled, after the interview, that O'Neill had been appointed more by acclaim than mere agreement. He took the club, and an estimated 80,000 fans, to Seville for the 2003 UEFA Cup final, which was won by Jose Mourinho's Porto. At least half of that Celtic support had no tickets but could not resist the opportunity to be in the vicinity. Results created that mood, particularly in the 2-0 win at Anfield that eliminated Liverpool.

There is complexity to O'Neill. He can inspire footballers by, in part, detaching himself a little. Many simply seem to strive all the more for his approval. Perhaps directors feel a little of that influence, too.

After leaving Celtic he took the post at Aston Villa. His style of football has a note of pragmatism that echoes the sort of know-how accumulated when he was at unfashionable clubs. It is easy to associate him with daunting centre-backs such as Gerry Taggart at Leicester City, but that has always been a restricted way of understanding O'Neill. There are wingers, too, and smart forwards. Without that, there could not have been two League Cup triumphs for Leicester.

At Celtic there was scope for the virtuoso Lubomir Moravcik, a playmaker with such a first touch that when the ball plummeted from out of the sky he was able, on one occasion, to tame it on the bounce with his backside.

The club suited him in that period, when its board were at least interested in experimenting with the idea that the status of the club could be transformed if they spent heavily. O'Neill had Chris Sutton and John Hartson, who each cost in the region of £6m, and sufficient funds left over to persuade Henrik Larsson that his best years should be spent in Glasgow. There is a paradox to O'Neill. He has great intensity and can often use that to inspire his team, but there is also a keen and calculating mind at work. In some respects he is an outsider since, unlike many managers, he does not think of himself as a coach. It must be Sunderland's calculation that a technician is not the priority but they have cause to think that the side will be galvanised by O'Neill.

Emotions may yet blaze again at the Stadium of Light.


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