Gifted O”Neill should have been on the front line
Martin O’Neill was late for his press conference. Not as late as he will be into the dug-out at Sunderland, mind you.
If, as suggested, O’Neill couldn’t wait to get started after more than a year out of management, he had a strange way of showing it. Appointed Saturday, he watched Sunday’s game from the stands and the players then had Monday off.
O’Neill will not officially take charge of a game until this weekend with the visit of Blackburn Rovers, ateam who have won a single away League game in 2011.
Previously, although his new role hadbeen confirmed, O’Neill sat it out as Sunderland surrendered a lead at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Hardly what the situation required: a hands-offmanager.
Getting comfy: Martin O”Neill (centre)opted for a seat in the directors” box over a place on the touchline at Wolves
‘We’re in the results business,’ O’Neill announced, amid the claim he was so hot to trot at Molineux thathe made a surprise visit to the dressing room before the game to inspire the players. ‘The confidence ebbed away, we’re in a bit of trouble at the moment,’ he added, having returned later to pick them up.
Yet what use was that Inheriting a crisis at Sunderland, O’Neill should have been on the front line for 90 minutes. One glance at the League table shows the consequence of Sunday’s defeat, particularly with Fulham beating Liverpool the next day. Dropping three points to Wolves could be an influential factor comeMay. O’Neill would expect to recoup them at home to Blackburn anyway, but winning at Wolves would have propelled Sunderland to 15th place. Why wait
It is a very modern phenomenon, the detached first game. Sit in the stands, take it all in, if the team win it is your inspirational presence working its magic from afar, if they lose, well, the previous lot were hopeless, that’s why you’re needed.
Yet there is rarely a positive reasonfor a club sacking their manager midway through the season; and what emergency is best served by allowing it to run unchecked a few more days
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O’Neill is a very gifted manager. Considering Sunderland’s last result was a home defeat by Wigan Athleticthere was no way he could have made the situation worse. What was his downside What does O’Neill know from observing Sunday’s game that he could not have deduced already That high-maintenance striker Nicklas Bendtner needs to get over himself Thank you, Inspector.
It was not as if O’Neill had no time to prepare, either. His predecessor, Steve Bruce, was doomed from the moment of the Wigan defeat. The deed would have been done the following day, had the tragic death of Gary Speed not cast a pall over all football matters. Sunderland owner Ellis Short believed it would be extremely crass and disrespectful to sack his manager on the day Speed had taken his life; he also feared a pure coincidence being misinterpreted as an appalling attempt to bury bad news.
Even so, by the middle of the week, Bruce was gone and O’Neill in the box seat. Plenty of time, then, to burn the midnight oil with DVDs of recent performances. O’Neill is an insightful man, and an insightful manager; and with Sunderland’s next game scheduled for 4pm on Sunday, he would already have begun identifying flaws.
Harry Redknapp had it right. Appointed by Tottenham Hotspur late on Saturday, October 25, 2008, he was in the dug-out and calling the shots at home to Bolton Wanderers the next day. The usual cynics called it a clever move, Redknapp sensing an easy win and swooping in to claim the glory. But no matches were easy for Tottenham at that time. They were bottom of the Premier League, with two points and no victories, and had already registered defeats against Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Hull City and Stoke City, plus a goalless home draw with Wigan.
Redknapp could easily have lost and started his Tottenham career on a downer, with an away trip to Arsenal three days later, followed by Liverpool. He chose to get stuck in from day one; not popping by the dressing room, but trying to effect immediate change.
That day, Redknapp approved the team prepared by Clive Allen — rightly believing that he would know most about player fitness — but met the players at 11.30am, travelled with them to White Hart Lane on the team coach, sat on the bench and tweaked the formation by moving Luka Modric out of the midfield four to play behind striker Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Getting stuck in: Harry Redknapp (right) joined Clive Allen on the touchline as Tottenham beat Bolton 2-0
‘I hadn’t got time to have a look at it all, but I had to get cracking straight away,’ he said. ‘When you’ve got two points from eight games, you’re in trouble.’
That word again. Yet the modern way ignores trouble. The modern way sits in the comfy seats, observing intently as O’Neill did with his faithful assistant Steve Walford by his side, while trouble continues its rampage through the house. That makes no sense.
Walford is, by all accounts, the coach; O’Neill is the master motivator and brains of the operation. In the style of his mentor, Brian Clough, he comes in, makes an impact, retreats. The directors’ box, however, is a retreat too far.
O’Neill could have kept Eric Black’s team against Wolves, but also put his mark on the day. He could have let Walford watch from on high while he got to work at the coalface.
Sunderland needed O’Neill sooner, not later. They appointed a manager whose presence can instantly lift a club. He radiated infectious energy again on Tuesday, but it seemed such a waste. O’Neill’s gift is too powerful to be wasted on a television lens, or a second longer than necessary.
Pardew”s testing times
The trip to Norwich City is a big one for Newcastle United; far greater in significance than the run of fixtures against the Premier League elite.
Newcastle picked up one point from those three games, and a couple of injuries that could define their season.
Troubling: the influential Fabricio Coloccini receives treatment as Alan Pardew nervously looks on during the 3-0 defeat to chelsea
To lose Steven Taylor until the summer is a colossal blow, made worse by the news Fabricio Coloccini could be out for a month. Coping without their two central defenders will tell us more about Newcastle’s potential than a defeat by Manchester City. It may also expose Mike Ashley’s lack of recent investment, placing in perspective the little miracle performed by manager Alan Pardew.
Taking this into account, will there be a more influential call this season than the one on Saturday that kept Chelsea defender David Luiz on the field, having brought down Newcastle striker Demba Ba Chelsea looked very nervous even defending a 1-0 lead so may not have held out a man down early on with the match goalless.
They would also have had to remove a forward to introduce another defender to replace Luiz, meaning Newcastle would have been less stretched at the back.
And had Chelsea’s attacking threat been reduced, would Newcastle have picked up two injuries in key defensive positions
Unknowns, obviously. Yet the glib assessment that Newcastle got a dodgy penalty at Manchester United a week earlier, so these things even up over a season, is clearly nonsense. With the ramifications so far-reaching, there is no logical way the cosmos can level off the errors of Premier League referees.
Mike Dean, inadvertently, did more to burst Newcastle’s bubble in one moment at St James’ Park than Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea did in three games put together.
Fame is more than cash and profiles
A final thought on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award. Brian Barwick, former chief executive of the Football Association and a high-ranking television executive, had what he called an Oxford Street test. If a particular sports person walked along Oxford Street would all heads turn It was his way of defining true fame.
As the BBC look for personality, as well as ability, in their sporting heroes, Barwick’s measure is significant. Chrissie Wellington, a champion Ironman triathlete, has declined her invitation to the event in protest at the all-male shortlist, but she could certainly walk the streets of London at Christmas untroubled.
So, too, could many of those she lionises: Keri-Anne Payne, Sarah Stevenson, Hayley Turner and Helen Jenkins.
Failing the test: Wellington
‘I do not feel able to support an event which endorses and perpetuates the message that the achievements of those participating in minority sports are somehow inferior to those in more high-profile and better funded sports,’ said Wellington.
It is not as simple as that, though. To be at the top in any sport is an immense achievement, but the bigger the interest, the more participants, the greater the competition, the less chance of personal success.
I know a chap who had never been in a boat in his life until he went to university, and ended up a stalwart of the rowing team. That would not happen in university football. Too much competition.
Andy Murray chose tennis over football in part because he knew he had more chance of reaching the top and the ranking system would reveal where he was. He was invited for a trial with Rangers but did not go.
‘I had no idea whether I was the 50th best striker for my age in Scotland but I knew I was second in Europe for tennis at Under 14,’ he told me. ‘As everybody plays football, I decided I must be better at tennis.’
That is why those at the top of the biggest sports are the most widely recognised and the likeliest to have public appeal. Nobody is claiming minority event athletes are inferior, just that fame is about more than funding and media profile. It is also a numbers game.
The London Olympics will go some way to redressing the balance next year, but until every child grows up wanting to be an Ironman triathlete, the Oxford Street test will always be a much-resented tiebreaker.
Agent of doom
Portsmouth are looking to hire an agent to prepare for yet another transfer window fire sale.
Why Everybody in football knows the club are skint following the collapse of parent company Convers Sports Initiatives. Everybody knows players are for sale or looking to move.
The market will take these factors into account, dictate the price and all an agent will do is reduce Portsmouth’s share by taking an undeserved cut.
AND WHILE WE”RE AT IT…
The fan in us all wants Tiger Woods back to his best. We want the head-to-head with Rory McIlroy, the battle for supremacy at the top of the world rankings with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the assault on the history books that an ascendant Tiger represents.
Too much import, however, is being placed on his first tournament win in 749 days. Woods may have triumphed at Thousand Oaks, California, but that does not mean Tiger is back.
The Chevron World Challenge is a low-key PGA Tour event comprising just 18 players, only one of whom was ranked in the world’s top seven (Steve Stricker, fifth).
The highest placed English, British, continental European, South African and Australian player was not present, either.
So while Woods won at the weekend, so did McIlroy and Westwood — and they will both be present at the Abu Dhabi Championship in January.
‘Don’t call it a comeback,’ said Woods after his first win in two years. And nobody will — unless he beats the big boys in the Middle East.
Talk about the passion
Steve Kean, the Pollyanna of Premier League management, was preparing for more talks with the owners of Blackburn Rovers this week. They seem to be in permanent conversation. After each game, Kean is either discussing transfer policy, or explaining another undeserved loss, or renegotiating his contract.
This is when he isn’t attempting to schedule a meeting with disgruntled supporters, unconvinced by two Premier League wins all season.
Maybe if Kean spent more time running the team and less time gabbing about it, results would improve.
Then again, from the owners’ points of view, the beauty of an over-promoted manager is that when required to jump, he asks how high.
Kean’s predecessor, Sam Allardyce, may have let Venky’s talk to the hand, which is probably why he got the elbow.
In the lap of the gods
Appealing against the three-match ban for Wayne Rooney, England’s case to UEFA is strong. It is based on historical precedent (Andrey Arshavin of Russia received a two-game ban for a similar offence in 2007) and relative severity (suspending a player for three games at a maximum six-game tournament would be like a 19-game ban for a red card in the Premier League).
It is also true, however, that a player who kicks an opponent off the ball is immediately open to the vagaries of any disciplinary system, and is the sole architect of his downfall.
City”s confidence trick
Kolo Toure has a point about clubs who sign African players and then resent the fact that they play in the Africa Cup of Nations, but that is not why his career is stalling at Manchester City.
Toure, who was banned for six months from March 2, 2011 for failing a drugs test, is convinced that he has never been forgiven for failing to make an important match against Manchester United after playing for Ivory Coast in Angola in 2010.
Falling down: Kolo Toure”s argument does not ring true
Yet Toure appeared in 15 of City’s remaining 19 games that season and in 29 of their first 43 in all competitions in the next campaign, right up to the period following a 1-1 draw against Fulham on February 27, 2011, when he abruptly disappeared from the side. He has subsequently struggled to regain his place.
City picked Toure regularly after the Africa Cup of Nations, so it must have been something else that rattled their confidence in him. It certainly is a head-scratcher. What can it be, what can it be