Relegation and gremlins proving no match for O’Neill
After a 3-1 defeat at Southend in his brief spell as Sunderland manager in 2006, Niall Quinn spoke of the need to get rid of “the gremlins” at the club. When Roy Keane turned up a couple of weeks later, the gremlins, understandably, made themselves scarce and Sunderland rocketed from the bottom of the Championship to the top, winning promotion.
The gremlins, though, continue to lurk. Sunderland is a club with a habit of getting down on itself, of slipping into runs of incomprehensibly bad form: three wins in 19 games at the end of 2001-02; 20 games without a win at the end of 2002-03; three wins all season in 2005-06; eight defeats in a nine-game run last season.
The question is, of course, why? The players and the management have changed radically in the last decade, so why does the same pattern keep recurring? It’s not just Sunderland: most clubs have a clearly defined personality that transcends the individuals who happen to be wearing the shirts or sitting in the dugout.
It must, to an extent, be the fans. To take a simple example: if they get used to scoring late winners or equalisers, they will be energised in the final minutes, driving their team forward. That, in turn, may make the opponent anxious, causing them to drop deeper, inviting pressure, making it harder to clear their lines, almost inviting the late goal that had come to be expected. The converse is also true. And Sunderland have seen that with Keane and Steve Bruce: under Keane they scored hatfuls of late goals; under Bruce they conceded them.
So Sunderland fans have got used to things going wrong – as makes sense for a city that has been battered incessantly by economic storms for the past 40 years. No matter how good things are, the worm of doubt gnaws away. One defeat? Two defeats? And suddenly the confidence built up by the latest messiah comes crashing down, anxiety transmitting itself to the pitch.
Martin O’Neill, like Keane, has a strong enough personality to overwhelm the gremlins – at least at first. O’Neil has organised the side, given them belief and self-discipline. Against Manchester City, in particular, the defensive shape was excellent. Their confidence can be seen in the number of long-range strikes that are suddenly hitting the target, and there has been clear work done on set-plays, both from attacking and defensive points of view. But just as important has been his personality.
Against Wolves, in the last game before O’Neill took over, Sunderland led 1-0, then missed a penalty and conceded two late goals. It seemed typical of their malaise. The next game, O’Neill’s first in charge, they trailed Blackburn 1-0 with seven minutes to go. Then David Vaughan thumped in a 25-yarder and when Sebastian Larsson stood over an injury-time free kick there was an inevitability about his goal.
The honeymoon lasted longer than anybody dared hope and brought seven wins in the first 10 league games, but three games without a win have perhaps exposed the limitations of the squad and raised the first doubts. Lee Cattermole, so assured and commanding in the wins over Manchester City and Arsenal (in the FA Cup) hasn’t helped with his stupid red card in Sunday’s derby and subsequent four-game ban.
Still, even Sunderland should be capable of picking up the six or seven points that will guarantee survival – and that was O’Neill’s task when he arrived. And there is always the possibility of something extra in the FA Cup (although a penalty shootout win in the League Cup aside, Sunderland haven’t won at Everton, their quarter-final opponents, since 1996). Really, though, the first task is almost complete. The job now is to refine the squad over the summer – and keep the gremlins away.
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