Defeat by Wolves shows O'Neill the size of his task
Martin O’Neill’s allegiance to Sunderland resulted in many a boyhood scrap in the schoolyards of Northern Ireland. He will have driven through the gates of The Academy of Light on Monday morning knowing he has another fight on his hands.
O’Neill – appointed Sunderland manager on a three-year contract on Saturday – chose a vantage point high above his familiar territory in the technical area to observe the squad left behind by sacked Steve Bruce.
It was a view that allowed him an aerial – and perhaps sobering – view of the task he has taken on at the club that captured his imagination as a boy because Sunderland boasted the great Irish defender Charlie Hurley.
Martin O'Neill was appointed as the new Sunderland manager after former boss Steve Bruce was dismisssed from his job at the Stadium of Light. PHOTO: Getty
O'Neill revealed it was support he literally had to battle for as a youngster in the face of opposition from Celtic, Rangers and Manchester United fans. It is this combative spirit he will now attempt to inject into a Sunderland side that is too much of a soft touch.
And if Sunderland were willing to hand victory to Wolves after taking the lead through Kieran Richardson and wasting Sebastian Larsson’s dubiously earned penalty, they were unwittingly obliging to their new manager.
In conceding two late goals to Wolves striker Steven Fletcher, Sunderland provided O’Neill with a razor-sharp snapshot of their season. It was the perfect picture of why he has been summoned from a 17-month exile since leaving Aston Villa.
O’Neill was not the frantic figure that has become so familiar. There was the odd twitch when a chance was missed and a pained expression when disappointed at a passage of play. But expect the full range of body language when he makes his bow at The Stadium of Light against Blackburn on Sunday.
Sunderland effectively produced a list of the reasons why O’Neill has replaced Bruce. In allowing Wolves to win the game, they showed they are shorn of confidence and punchless in attack.
They are also lacking authority in a defence comprised entirely of former Manchester United players and badly in need of direction and structure.
Bruce’s final match in charge was the 2-1 defeat by Wigan after they had gone 1-0 up.
The manner in which they let another winning position be transformed into defeat was a classic symptom of the malaise O’Neill must cure.
Faced with the sudden prospect of defeat, all self-belief visibly drained away from the players.
The new manager witnessed it all for himself – so it is to be expected that chairman and owner Ellis Short will be asked to fund the early stages of a serious reconstruction in January.
O’Neill told Sunderland fans who gathered early at Molineux to welcome their new leader: “Without promising the earth, moon and stars, I will do my utmost to bring a bit of success to Sunderland.”
He added: “You want to get yourself established. We had a great season last season, finishing 10th and a wee bit of a disappointing start this time. But we hope that, with a little bit of luck, we can turn things around.
“I would like it to be a really successful period and I'm going to try my best to achieve that. That’s what I’ve come for.”
At this stage, “a bit of success” will simply be avoiding relegation. The nature of the January transfer window means O’Neill may have to wait until next summer to really go to work.
There were some shafts on light on a grim day for Sunderland. Richardson’s superbly fashioned goal just after half-time will have been right up O’Neill’s street, showing pace on the break and a direct approach.
Larsson was lively and, despite a dreadful dive to earn his penalty – which he missed with the air of a man with a weighty conscience – the Swede has the sort of ability O’Neill can nurture.
O’Neill’s most-pressing problem is finding an effective striker and a measure of creation. He has a penchant for a big man up front – whether that big man continues to be Nicklas Bendtner is open to question.
He is not known as a man to massage an over-blown ego and he has plenty to get his hands on with the Dane.
One incident in the second half, when Bendtner failed miserably to show urgency in a dangerous Sunderland attack, would surely have brought a combustible reaction – and perhaps the toe end of O’Neill’s boot had he been in closer proximity.
The South Korean Ji Dong-Won shows no sign of being the answer to O’Neill’s most pressing problem, so expect scouts to be dispatched in search of a reliable marksman.
On Sunday’s evidence, he would happily take the bustling work-rate and goals of Wolves’ Fletcher ahead of anything he currently has at his disposal.
Wes Brown has been an accident waiting to happen in recent weeks and he was guilty of slack work again when he allowed Fletcher to escape for his equaliser.
He will need to show some of his former powers to survive what may well prove to be a brutal cut.
O’Neill is unlikely to ease himself in at Sunderland. He will need to work quickly, so it would be no surprise if some stark messages are delivered to his new charges once he gets them behind closed doors on his first day on the job.
He will arrive at his new home well-prepared – but, in the unlikely event of this not being the case, Sunderland filled in plenty of the blanks for O’Neill at Molineux.