Newly appointed Stadium of Light boss has a tough job on his hands.
As Martin O’Neill watched over his new charges from the Director’s Box at Wolves, he will have been dismayed to see Sunderland clinch defeat from the jaws of victory, and will now be even more aware of the size of the task he faces in rebuilding a team that was flirting with the upper echelons of the Premier League just a year ago.
The former Aston Villa boss must be concerned at the way the Black Cats wilted instantly after Sebastian Larsson missed a penalty which would have given his team a 2-0 lead with just a quarter of the game remaining. Instead, two quick-fire Stephen Fletcher goals sealed another defeat, and it’s far from the first time that Sunderland have frozen in the headlights this season. Indeed a disconcertingly similar turnaround at home to Wigan last week did for former manager Steve Bruce, the first of two defeats which leave Sunderland languishing in 17th place in the league with just 11 points from 14 games.
But that the Black Cats greatest fault this season has been a lack of spirit and composure when in winning positions should be encouraging for O’Neill, the man charged with turning around fortunes on Wearside. Fighting spirit is the last thing that the former Nottingham Forest player can be accused of lacking. The sight of him bouncing around, enacting every kick and every header from the touchline from first minute to last, is one for which many Aston Villa fans will now be yearning.
If he can instill the same energy and verve into his Sunderland team then they should climb the league quickly.
But the task ahead of the Northern Irishman isn’t a simple one. Although Sunderland are decent on the break, with the pace and craft of Keiran Richardson and Stephane Sessegnon a particular threat, this is not a side that looks as though it knows how it should be playing.
It’s true that, largely brought together during the summer transfer window, the current crop of players do not know each other well. But Manchester City have proven that unfamiliarity need not be a barrier to success – albeit that a bunch of unfamiliar superstars have an unfair advantage.
Their real problem is a lack of identity. It looks as though Steve Bruce signed a group of players without really knowing how he wanted them to play together. Aside from giving them a bit of belief, O’Neill’s main task will be to give his squad a sense of self; a regular system which suits his players’ attributes whilst making them more resilient. Certainly at Villa he achieved this, crafting a side that became known for counter-attacking flair and defensive solidity.
The question then will be where the goals come from. Replacing the prolific Darren Bent was never going to be easy, and although the size of Nicklas Bendtner’s ego is unquestionable, his goals to games ratio is deserving of far greater scrutiny.
But again, O’Neill brings hope. At Villa he nurtured and developed the talents of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, both of whom have gone onto bigger and better things, and perhaps he can do the same with Sunderland’s young strikers. England Under-21 starlet Connor Wickham, signed from Ipswich for a fee that could reach £12m promises much, whilst England under-19 international Ryan Noble has been running riot for the reserves.
And there will surely be money to spend. O’Neill walked out on Aston Villa after his ambition was not matched by owner Randy Lerner. He’s unlikely to have walked willingly into another cul-de-sac at Sunderland and must have been told that he’ll be backed with cash.
No doubt Black Cats fans will be glad to see arguably the UK’s most talented out of work manager choose Wearside as the right place to come back in to the fold. Sunderland are in desperate need of belief, purpose and consistency, and in Martin O’Neill they might just have the perfect man for the job.