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Winner O'Neill deserves another Sunderland season

By Bradley King



Martin O'Neill is a winner. Apart from a brief affair with Norwich City in 1995, he has succeeded everywhere that his managerial career has taken him.

At Wycombe Wanderers, he took the club from non-league to the upper echelons of what is now League One. At Leicester City, he won three League Cups and established the Foxes as part of the furniture in the Premier League. At Celtic, he won seven trophies and seven consecutive Old Firm battles. And at Aston Villa, he led the club to three top-six finishes in a row.

Yet, there still remains some kind of uncertainty about the  now-Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill, whose methods are somewhat shrouded in mystery. In an interview with Andy Impey last year, I asked the former Leicester wide man for his opinions on his former boss. "I found him slightly weird," said Impey, "but he's very good at what he does."

Never a master tactician, O'Neill's success appears to rely on his man-management skills. Those talents are likely to be put to the test over the next couple of months as the Black Cats cling on to the safety of low mid-table in the Premier League.

The 1-1 draw with Norwich City on Sunday, the majority of which was played against ten men after Canaries goalkeeper Mark Bunn was controversially shown a red card for handling the ball outside his area, made it seven games without a win for O'Neill's side. With the campaign entering its final stretch, this is no time for a rut.

But make no mistake - Sunderland are now anxiously looking over their shoulder. Five of the Wearsiders seven wins this season came in December and January, allowing a brief flirtation with the top half of the Premier League. Had that mini-run not happened, the Black Cats could be even closer to the drop zone than the four points that currently separates them and Wigan Athletic - who notably have a game in hand.

Last week, O'Neill stated that his team lacked 'real true ability', which is a worrying admission to be making in the final ten matches of the season. Indeed, it's the opposite of a vote of confidence. If it was deployed a motivational tool, it clearly didn't have the desired effect against Norwich.

O'Neill has been at the Stadium of Light for 15 months now and should have time to shape and change Steve Bruce's squad of mediocrity. Yet the squad is still a haven for very average footballers, linked together by the rare genuine talent.

For a start, in terms of full-backs, there isn't much to shout about. Central midfielders Craig Gardner and Jack Colback have been forced to fill in on either side throughout this season in what is a case of square pegs in round holes.

Up front, Steven Fletcher and Danny Graham are having to fast-track their fledgling partnership - hardly ideal in the midst of a relegation scrap.

But the lack of new bodies at the Stadium of Light isn't down to a lack of desire on O'Neill's part. Rather, he is paying the price for an era of overspending from previous manager Bruce, and owner Ellis Short has hidden the piggy bank. Hence only four signings during O'Neill's reign in the north-east so far - Adam Johnson, Steven Fletcher, Danny Graham and Alfred N'Diaye.

Some have claimed that O'Neill's sabbatical away from top-level football has seen his methods go stale; football has evolved and he has not. Perhaps that's the case, but it's unfair to judge on that without allowing him to work with a team built in his image.

Despite their lack of cutting edge, Sunderland are likely to avoid a disastrous relegation because there are at least three teams more toothless than them over the course of the campaign. That will give O'Neill a stay of execution, and another stab at the task at hand.

If given the resources, O'Neill may be able to improve Sunderland's fortunes. His record surely earns him the opportunity at least to prove himself a winner again.