Sacked O'Neill can have few complaints after dismal Sunderland reign

The Ulsterman departs the Black Cats after picking up just two wins in the Premier League in 2013, but the root of his dismissal lies in under-performing players and bad purchases

By Simon Sinclair

Sunderland sack Martin O'Neill. This was not the headline one expected to read just hours after a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United.

That said, the Black Cats hadn't tasted victory since January 19 - a 3-2 win away at Wigan - and it's hard to argue that news of the Ulsterman's departure came as a huge surprise.

In one way or another - and ultimately football is a results business - things just haven't been going right for O'Neill and his side for some time now; a stark contrast to when he first took the reins at the Stadium of Light in December 2011.


Taking over a side low in confidence and 17th in the table, the former Aston Villa boss quickly steadied the ship and made an immediate impact as he guided Sunderland to a comeback win over Blackburn Rovers, which kick-started a euphoric turnaround at the club.

By mid-February of 2012, Sunderland were all but safe of the threat of relegation that loomed under the tenure of Steve Bruce and, as a bonus, they also had an FA Cup quarter-final against Everton to look forward to.

Momentum was certainly surging at the Stadium of Light. O'Neill had found life in dormant playmaker Stephane Sessegnon, a possible gem in left winger James McClean and even Nicklas Bendtner was chipping in with a few goals.

Wins over Liverpool and then QPR had pushed the Black Cats into eighth place in the Premier League and the stage was set for O'Neill to march his troops to Wembley for the first since 1998 after forcing a replay with Everton following a commendable 1-1 draw at Goodison Park.

However, unlike any of the previous games under the 61-year-old, his team came out flat and nervous. The Toffees seized on Sunderland's misgivings and the FA Cup dream was over in a flash. What now?

Would this ruin the rest of Sunderland's season? Not initially. The Wearside club became the first team to take points off Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in the 2011-12 season and then held Tottenham a week later, but that was as far is it went.

The triumph over QPR in March, just three days before FA Cup heartache in the replay against Everton, was to be their last of the season as their campaign ended with a whimper, and a 13th-placed finish.

Despite the end of season collapse, supporters on Wearside were quietly optimistic that the team could recover and build under O'Neill with a few quality additions in the summer, ready to attack the 2012-13 campaign.

This was, don't forget, the manager who took Aston Villa to the brink of the Champions League.

The summer arrived, Carlos Cuellar joined on a free, as did Louis Saha. Sunderland waited and waited for Steven Fletcher to sign on the dotted line but, when he finally did seal the switch from Wolves, eyebrows were raised at the £12 million fee.

England international Adam Johnson soon followed for £10m and while a few more questions were asked, the 25-year-old was joining his hometown club with seemingly plenty to prove after an ill-fated spell at Manchester City. It was surely win-win for all concerned, right?

Wrong! The signing of Johnson was arguably the key decision that would cost O’Neill his job. While Fletcher banged in goals left, right and centre early in the season, the former Middlesbrough man was struggling to find his feet.

The Black Cats, stuttering and stumbling, were in the relegation zone by December.

Fletcher's goals had papered over the cracks but they soon dried up, Sessegnon had found his hiding place from the Bruce days once again, hot-shot McClean looked like a flash in the pan and Johnson was largely anonymous.

Respite came in the form of wins over Reading, Southampton and Manchester City; a collective sigh of relief on Wearside ensued. January was coming and reinforcements were clearly needed but cash was low after a £22m splurge in the summer.

13/8 Sunderland are 13/8 with Bet365 to be relegated
Swansea City striker Danny Graham and Bursaspor midfielder Alfred N’Diaye joined for a net spend of £8m along with defender Kadar Mangane, and wins over West Ham and Wigan eased relegation worries.

But the worst was yet to come.

Defeats to Reading, QPR and West Brom dropped the Black Cats back into the mix. O'Neill had let himself be hamstrung by his buys but his own squad had done him no favours either.

Senior players such as John O'Shea and Sessegnon refused to stand up and be counted at the club's time of need, while captain Lee Cattemole was either suspended or injured.

So then it all seemingly came down to one, decidedly tricky, fixture against the champions-elect for O'Neill to cling on and save his job.

Titus Bramble was introduced back into the starting line-up but the gamble failed to pay off, as the centre-back's unfortunate own goal resulted in defeat and the axe for the manager.

As the news begins to sink in, few Mackems will be seen protesting outside the Stadium of Light on Easter Sunday. They have more pressing issues to worry about. As relegation from the Premier League becomes a very real possiblity, the question now is... can anyone save Sunderland?

Follow Simon Sinclair on