Sunderland's plight leaves O'Neill little to celebrate on first anniversary in charge
12:41 GMT, 3 December 2012
Martin O’Neill 'celebrates' a year in charge at Sunderland today.
But there is not much to cheer on Wearside. His team are a point off the relegation zone, have a shocking record since the turn of the year and, even with their game in hand at home to Reading to come, are starting to look down rather than up.
The rumours about his alleged demise may have stopped but O’Neill has yet to provide the compelling evidence after a rollercoaster first 12 months that he should remain Sunderland manager.
He has admitted his team are in a relegation fight. And he is right.
Unhappy anniversary: O'Neill saw his Sunderland side crash at Norwich on the eve of his first year in charge
If you cannot win the winnable games against the likes of Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion at home, and you have Chelsea and Manchester United next, then you can consider yourself in serious trouble.
Their supporters can take little comfort from their latest defeat at Norwich City yesterday, or the concept that they can spend their way out of trouble in January. They signed Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher in the summer for more than 20million and look where that’s got them.
They are not even playing that well. The first half performance at Carrow Road was arguably their most abject yet of a miserable season, the damage done and their second half revival – arguably the best they have played under O’Neill – was too much and too little and too late. The 15 shots on goal in that period is nearly as many as they have managed since kick-off in August.
Key players have still to perform for Sunderland and the visit to Norfolk was another disappointing one for Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean.
Sessegnon appears to take one step forward and one step back in his games and the box of tricks he holds has been firmly shut for most of the season. McClean, sadly, is a shadow of the player who was thrown into the team by O’Neill in his first week.
At least Johnson is starting to steadily improve after far too many anonymous displays for his home-town club, although his choice of targets for assisting is limited.
Yellow peril: Anthony Pilkington celebrates his goal against Sunderland at Carrow Road
While Sessegnon remains in the team, striker Fletcher has been the central attacking force and Sunderland will be anxiously awaiting news of the injury the Scottish striker sustained at Norwich which forced him to depart at half-time.
O’Neill has persevered with his creative foursome but with mixed results. But the alternatives from the bench clearly don’t inspire much confidence in the manager.
Yesterday turned then to Connor Wickham, who has still scored only one goal for Sunderland since Steve Bruce signed him from Ipswich Town more than a year ago in a deal which could have been as much as 12million on appearances and, well goals.
The fact the Sunderland manager is now relying on a player he has virtually written off since taking over from Bruce – thus ignoring Louis Saha, Fraizer Campbell and Ji-Dong Won – can hardly be reassuring news for supporters preparing to return to the Stadium of Light to mark Chelsea’s visit this weekend.
Bitter blow: Sunderland's Connor Wickham appears dejected after the final whistle at Norwich
O’Neill’s record so far this season is worse than Bruce’s a year ago. He has also managed to secure just four wins in the last 27 Premier League games.
The longest honeymoon period in the history of football is officially over.
And Martin O’Neill has a job on his hands convincing the supporters, who were so desperate to see him at their club, that he can guide them even further out of the doldrums than they were in the first place.
Owner Ellis Short did not envisage this when he turned to the former Aston Villa boss – although his manager has pointed out that initially at Villa and Leicester he needed time, patience and a little understanding.
He will get that at Sunderland. And this is a club which needs stability, patience in the manager and a belief that they have found the right man for the job. Because they have.
But he needs to start winning some matches too.