Sunderland wield axe as O'Neill shown door
Sunderland last night sacked Martin O'Neill as the club took drastic action to prevent relegation. Following their 1-0 defeat by Manchester United at the Stadium of Light yesterday, Sunderland are one point outside the relegation zone in 16th position. If Aston Villa beat Liverpool today, they will slip to 17th.
A club statement issued last night said: "Sunderland AFC has announced that it has parted company with manager Martin O'Neill. The club would like to place on record its thanks to Martin and wishes him well for the future. An announcement will be made in the coming days regarding a successor."
Sunderland last won a league game on January 19, since when they have lost five and drawn three, beginning a slide which has taken them from mid-table to the gates of the Championship.
With new multi-billion pound TV deals beginning next season, this is not a year to be relegated and with seven teams from 12th to 18th separated by four points, the final weeks of the season promise to be brutal.
Owner Ellis Short acted ruthlessly in an attempt to prevent Sunderland suffering further but if the timing came as a shock, the listlessness of recent performances – in contrast to successful O'Neill sides of the past – can leave the Derry man with few complaints. Sunderland had one shot on target yesterday, a tame Connor Wickham effort from outside the box
When he took over in December 2011, O'Neill's appointment was expected to elevate the club into the top six in England. Much was made of the fact that he supported Sunderland as a boy but his decisions as a man ensured that counted for nothing.
The absence of John Robertson, his assistant for many years, was felt by many to be significant. His first six months brought energy and renewal but this season has been radically different.
If Steven Fletcher's 11 goals justified his signing – and his injury during the international break was another blow along with the loss of Lee Cattermole – then other arrivals haven't been as positive. Adam Johnson has struggled since arriving from Manchester City, while the January signing of Danny Graham encouraged nobody.
O'Neill left a bloated squad at Aston Villa but this Sunderland team is unrecognisable from his Leicester City and Celtic sides who believed they would win wherever they played.
"Confidence is a major thing in the game," O'Neill said after yesterday's game and it had slowly but irreversibly drained from his side this season. At 61, he, too, appeared to have his future behind him. The man who was expected by many to match the achievements of Brian Clough is now three years older than Clough was when he retired from football.
There were indications last night that O'Neill would be replaced quickly. Roberto Di Matteo, Alan Curbishley, Steve McClaren and Mark Hughes are the favourites in the betting. Gus Poyet, who just turned down the Reading job, is also mentioned as a possible successor. The new manager will know that staying in the Premier League is the only thing that matters.