The turnaround Martin O’Neill has brought about at the Stadium of Light has been nothing short of remarkable. Sunderland had accrued just ten points, sitting two clear of the drop zone with only a pair of wins all season, when the former Aston Villa, Celtic and Leicester City manager took over.
Having been in the stands for their 2-1 defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers on 4 December, O'Neill has overseen four wins in six games, losing just one, and has also taken his side through to the fourth round of the FA Cup. ‘The O’Neill factor’ are the words echoing around the north-east of England as Sunderland team sit comparatively pretty on 24 points in tenth place, claiming more wins in one month than they had in the previous four. With the Wearsiders top of the form charts since his arrival, and with O'Neill himself having named manager of the month for his first four weeks in charge, the Irishman certainly seems to be working his unique brand of magic once again.
His first game in charge was a good barometer for what was to come. Trailing 1-0 to Blackburn Rovers with just six minutes to go, the doom and gloom slowly returning to puncture the initial optimism inside the Stadium of Light, David Vaughan struck from the edge of the box to restore parity. Then in the second minute of injury time Sebastian Larsson’s fine free-kick began O’Neill’s reign with style.
Sunderland's next match, at high-flying Tottenham Hotspur, didn't kill the buzz as, having been pegged back to 2-2 by Queens Park Rangers after being two goals up, Wes Brown headed the winner a minute from time. A 1-1 draw with Everton followed and, while O’Neill himself ranks the recent 4-1 win at Wigan Athletic as the best result of his tenure, by far the most dramatic win came with the visit of juggernauts Manchester City on New Year’s Day.
We're fighting for our lives in this league and we defended with our lives. Our spirit is fantastic. I'm ecstatic.
The barrage was predictable, with the visitors having three times as many shots, ten corners to Sunderland’s one and dominating possession throughout. However, a defensive display full of heart and courage, typified by steely captain Lee Cattermole and an encouraging debut from youngster James McClean - who has shone for O’Neill since - set up for the most dramatic of finishes. Breaking forward with seconds remaining, Korea Republic international Ji Dong-Won exchanged passes with Stephane Sessegnon and slotted past Joe Hart to send the home crowd into raptures.
After the game, O’Neill was clearly still in a jubilant state of shock. “It was a remarkable performance," the Northern Irishman said hoarsely. "To contend with all our injuries like that was extraordinary. It was a fantastic game. We're fighting for our lives in this league and we defended with our lives. Our spirit is fantastic. I'm ecstatic."
In paying tribute to his team, O’Neill also reeled off a list of players forced to play out of position, just returning from injury and even bedridden the previous day who went out and performed for him and the team. This was the impact many expected him to have when he arrived: getting the best out of a group of players, and getting their all right until the final whistle. Three wins clinched in the 89th minute or later in his first five games, following two losses inflicted in the final ten prior to his appointment, seem to imply that's just the kind of impact he has had.
Cattermole is among the players who have lauded his methods thus far. “The gaffer has brought a great belief and confidence to the team," said the combative midfielder. "Every game we go in to now we believe we can take three points from them, even against Manchester City. Even with the injuries we had, we still believed and it showed. At the end I think the manager just wanted to say 'well done'. He keeps telling everyone how good they are and he has got everyone in good spirits. He is very intelligent and he has a massive passion."
A knack for the extraordinary
O’Neill does have a previous record for producing the extraordinary at club level. Even brushing over his magnificent European Cup success with Nottingham Forest in 1980 as a player - this after he was injured for the 1979 final - he surprised many with his silverware success with another provincial Midlands club, Leicester City. Having been relegated from the top flight the previous season, the Foxes were transformed by O'Neill and triumphed in the Division One play-offs to take them back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Celtic are an absolutely massive club and they have been starved of success. It will not come easy.
That, however, was merely the start as the former Northern Ireland international guided Leicester to a top ten finish, as well as taking them to their first major title in 33 years by winning the League Cup . Better still, Leicester qualified for the final of the same competition of the same competition twice in the following three years, losing the first to a last-minute Tottenham Hotspur goal before seeing off Tranmere Rovers in the second, establishing O'Neill the most successful manager in the club’s history.
With three pieces of silverware and four top-ten finishes, O’Neill cashed in his kudos and moved north of the border to take over a Celtic side who had won just one Scottish League title in the previous 12 seasons. “Celtic are an absolutely massive club and they have been starved of success," he said at the time. "It will not come easy, it's daunting, but it's really exciting at the same time.”
Cue a treble-winning debut season, with a clean sweep of domestic honours, followed by another two league titles during his five-year spell as well as a double-winning year in 2004. The Bhoys reached at least one cup final in every one of O'Neill's seasons at the helm, with the most dramatic a heart-breaking extra-time defeat by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the 2003 UEFA Cup. Henrik Larsson, meanwhile, reached new heights under O'Neill's tenure, finishing top scorer in the SPL for four years running. When the Irishman called time on his stay in Glasgow, he left with seven winner's medals.
Although his next assignment at Aston Villa was moderately successful in comparison, O'Neill still managed to take the Birmingham side to their first major final in a decade, losing to Manchester United in the League Cup. Furthermore, he also brought Villa Park its first taste of European football in seven years.
The consistency of his record is such that, while it may be fanciful this season, Sunderland fans have high hopes of travelling to a Wembley final with O'Neill in the not too distant future. And who would bet against it?