O’Neill’s dream job turns into a nightmare as Sunderland wield axe

Martin O’Neill was dismissed as Sunderland manager on Saturday.

The Ulsterman grew up as a supporter of the Wearside club, so it was a dream realised when he was appointed as Steve Bruce’s successor in December 2011. At the time the Black Cats were 18th in the Premier League, but their new manager had an immediate impact from his first game in charge when they came from behind to beat Blackburn Rovers at the Stadium of Light.

At one point it even looked as though Sunderland would challenge for a place in the UEFA Europa League as they rose as high as eighth in the table, but one win in their last ten matches saw them finish the campaign in 13th spot. Despite this dip in form there were high hopes that O’Neill would benefit from a full pre-season, with a top-ten finish the target.

The 61-year-old was given cash to spend during the summer window, and he used a combined £25million to take striker Steven Fletcher from Wolverhampton Wanderers, and England international winger Adam Johnson from Manchester City. Louis Saha and Carlos Cuellar were also added on free transfers, and Danny Rose arrived from Tottenham Hotspur on loan.

The Black Cats drew four and won one of their opening five matches, and they racked up another four wins in the remainder of the calendar year, including a Boxing Day victory over champions Manchester City. When the window reopened in the winter, O’Neill further bolstered his options by taking Swansea City forward Danny Graham for £4million, and France Under-21 international midfielder Alfred N’Diaye, who joined from Turkish side Bursaspor for £3million.

Despite back-to-back wins in January over West Ham United and at Wigan Athletic, in which they scored a combined six goals, Sunderland have been on a downward slide since the turn of the year, and their 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on Saturday was their eighth successive match without a win. This leaves them in 16th place in the Premier League and just a point above the relegation zone, and the two teams directly below them both have a game in hand.

All this was too much for the club, who released the following statement on their website on Saturday: “Sunderland AFC has announced that it has parted company with manager Martin O’Neill this evening. The club would like to place on record its thanks to Martin and wishes him well for the future. An announcement will be made in the coming days regarding a successor.”

Once touted as a potential successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, O’Neill enjoyed his most success in Scotland with Celtic, winning three league titles, three Scottish Cups, and a Scottish League Cup during a five-year stint. Prior to this he led Leicester City to the Premier League via the playoffs, and won two League Cups in his five year spell at the Midlands club.

O’Neill spent four years at Aston Villa from 2006 to 2010, during which time they flirted with challenging the top four without ever breaking into the UEFA Champions League places, yet they finished a creditable sixth for three successive seasons. They also reached the League Cup final in 2010, but despite taking an early lead through James Milner, lost 2-1 to Manchester United. He then angered the Midlands club by quitting his job shortly before the start of the 2010-11 season.

Mark Hughes, who was sacked by Queens Park Rangers earlier this term, has been installed as the early favourite to be named as the new Black Cats manager. Roberto Di Matteo, who led Chelsea to Champions League and FA Cup glory last season before being axed six months later, is also a contender, as is the former England coach Steve McClaren.


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