Holden A Minute
Martin O'Neill admitted Sunderland look set for a relegation battle this week but the admission came as no surprise to Mike Holden, who has his doubts about the Northern Irishman's ability to manage at the top level in the modern day.
O'Neill has the secret to ever-lasting life
Here's a question for the Great British media, something that's been puzzling me for couple of months now: when is Martin O'Neill going to come under scrutiny for Sunderland's sub-standard performances this season? When is his reputation as a top-level manager going to be questioned?
The Black Cats are falling way short of the fanfare that greeted the Ulsterman's arrival at the Stadium of Light last December. In fact, you could argue they're no better off than they were under Steve Bruce. So what's the excuse? Injuries? A lack of funds? To my mind, there isn't one.
More to the point, it seems as though O'Neill is fiddling while Rome burns, doing a wonderful job of convincing reporters that the situation is all under control. One week, the Wearsiders aren't getting the breaks. The next week, it's a confidence issue that can quickly be resolved. Now the R-word has finally been uttered but along with the usual guff about rolling-up sleeves and digging in.
Well I'm sorry Martin, I could have told you relegation was on the cards about a month ago when you could still get odds of 16/1 about it happening. And such is my belief that Sunderland represent a managerial crisis-in-waiting, I've since gone back and topped-up at 12/1, 7/1 and 5/1.. And I'm not sure I've finished yet.
The stats have painted a bleak picture all season long. The Black Cats are bereft of creativity. They've been bottom of the shot supremacy table since August but like every great relegation bet, their plight is being masked by ignorance. To many mainstream journalists, uncovering O'Neill's shortcomings is akin to hacking the US defence system.
Yet media denial isn't the only thing papering over the cracks. Results don't nearly reflect the severity of the situation, mainly because the Mackems have picked up over half of their 13 points against opposition with ten men. Red cards for Jordi Gomez, Cheick Tiote and Brede Hangeland - highly dubious in two instances - brought about results that probably wouldn't have occurred otherwise.
Remove the outlier that was Steven Fletcher's early-season chance conversion rate, forget the subconscious temptation to add three points for that game in hand against Reading and look through their fixtures between now and FA Cup third round weekend to see who they haven't played. Now, tell me, has their season so far been anything other than an unmitigated disaster?
So what's the deal with O'Neill? How is he being allowed to get away with such shabby standards without the slightest murmur of discontent? The truth is, O'Neill used to be a great manager. But he isn't anymore. The game has moved on and he hasn't moved with it. And, besides, the success he enjoyed beyond his days with Leicester in the late 1990s comes loaded with caveats in any case.
The silverware at Celtic is punctuated with 'yeah buts' about Scottish football - in short, he went head to head with Alex McLeish for five years and narrowly came out on top - and the string of top-six finishes with Aston Villa came by virtue of financial backing to a level that subsequent managers can only dream of.
Now you might even argue that O'Neill is only half the man without long-standing sidekick John Robertson who, by most accounts, took complete responsibility for events on the training ground prior to Sunderland, giving O'Neill more time than most to smooch with reporters who needed decent copy ahead of their deadlines. Judging by the reaction this season, it's actually not a bad policy for managerial longevity.
Read Mike Holden's weekly column every Wednesday at Best of the Bets.
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