by Paul Cantwell

It’s not often a manager can lose and still be considered lucky but Martin O’Neill was one such man after Sunderland’s fourth round League Cup defeat to Middlesborough at the Stadium of Light. Had Reading and Arsenal not simultaneously played out one of the most extraordinary games in the competition’s history surely the Black Cats abject loss to their North East Championship neighbours would have warranted considerably more column inches in yesterday’s papers.

But then again, O’Neill has always enjoyed the sort of easy ride from the fourth estate that the majority of his fellow managers can only dream of. With the exception of Sir Alex Ferguson it’s difficult to think of a manager who receives such favourable Fleet Street treatment. Emboldened by decades of success, Ferguson has reduced the media to whimpering sycophants, afraid to ask anything that could even loosely be construed as impertinent, much less critical. For a reason far less clear, O’Neill seems to exercise a similar power over the press. Routinely lauded as a fine manager and forever linked to the games’ top jobs, O’Neill commands a degree of respect from both the press and his fellow managers far above the one his career would appear to merit.

The genesis of the O’Neill-Media love affair can be found in the Derryman’s days as boss of Wycombe Wanderers, his first managerial role. The received wisdom goes thus: O’Neill guided the lowly conference side to successive promotions before out-growing them and moving on to unfashionable Leicester City, whom he guided to European qualification, winning a couple of League Cups to boot. From there he moved to Celtic where he enjoyed massive success before taking a two year sabbatical from which he emerged to take the reigns at Aston Villa, where he established the Midlands club among the top six. A CV to match any of the game’s modern day heavyweight managers, we are constantly told. But in truth it’s a CV that becomes far less impressive under scrutiny.

Whilst dragging Wycombe from the Conference to League 1 is indeed an achievement of note, it should be viewed with the rather large caveat of having been achieved over a period of five years and not the two years many assume it to be. Put in that context it could be argued O’Neill’s spell at Wycombe was less impressive than the considerably less lauded Steve Evans at Crawley Town or Paul Lambert at Norwich, both of whom moved up two divisions in less time than O’Neill. Nevertheless, the spell in charge at Adams Park was a resounding success. If anything, O’Neill topped it at Leicester, where he gained promotion to the Premiership before establishing the Filbert Street side as a top eight team and winning the League Cup in 1997 and again in 2000.

Had O’Neill’s career stopped there the media love-in may have been understandable. Instead, he moved on to Celtic in June of 2000 where he is fondly remembered as having performed miracles. It would appear this impression is down to the fact that the Ulsterman had taken over the reigns from the disastrous John Barnes-Kenny Dalglish experiment. While winning three championships in five seasons would normally deserve high praise, in the context of the two horse race that is the Scottish Premier League, it can be argued O’Neill just about achieved par and certainly less than his unloved successor Gordon Strachan, who won three titles in a row. A spirited run to the final of the 2004 Uefa Cup should also be qualified by taking account of the poor opposition the Hoops encountered along the way.

Still, not counting an ill-fated six month spell at Norwich, O’Neill had achieved varying degrees of success at each of his clubs. Then came Villa.

On the face of it, three sixth place finishes with the perennial underachievers from Villa Park isn’t too shabby. But when one considers the vast outlay of cash required to achieve those finishes, a far less flattering light is shone on the tenure. Having lived with the penny-pinching ways of Deadly Doug Ellis for so many years, Villa fans were beside themselves with joy when American Randy Lerner bought the club in June of 2006 and immediately made large sums available to O’Neill, who had been appointed only a few weeks previous.

In total, O’Neill spent £121 million on transfer fees in his four year spell at Villa Park, recouping just £39 million in player sales. In light of this £82 million net spend Villa’s sixth place finishes represent a very poor return. When one considers that Rafael Benitez (a man who had a worse press than Jimmy Saville) had a net spend of £83 million over a six year spell at Liverpool which included qualification for the Champions League in five of those seasons (winning it once), it’s amazing that O’Neill was allowed to decide his own faith, walking out on the eve of the 2010/11 season – an act many would argue to be both petulant and vindictive.

Overall O’Neill managed Villa 190 times, chalking up a win ratio of just 42.11% – an unfavourable percentage when compared to the 43.16% win rate of the much maligned former manager John Gregory, who also managed the Villains exactly 190 times. That O’Neill left such a poor squad (on some of the countries highest wages) makes it all the more incredible that he avoided a media onslaught.

All of which brings us to Sunderland. With a quarter of the season gone, the Black Cats sit fourteenth in the Premiership table having scored just six goals (with Newcastle forward Demba Ba’s own goal in last week’s North-east derby making him Sunderland’s second top scorer.) No team has scored fewer, which is unsurprising given Sunderland have had just 12 shots on target all season. In all, the Wearsiders have won just one of their last 16 league games, yet O’Neill’s odds to be the first Premiership manager of the season to get the axe are a massive 66/1. In other words, despite presiding over a team getting the kind of results that earned his predecessor, Steve Bruce, his P45 this stage last season, the bookies believe the Ulsterman to be untouchable.

Perhaps O’Neill will revive Sunderland’s fortunes and turn them into the type of solid, tough-to-beat (if soporifically uninspiring) team that he specialised in creating in the earlier stages of his career. However, if this is to happen it needs to happen soon, as the Sunderland manager surely cannot remain impervious to criticism forever, lucky loser or not.

Check out Paul’s fantastic blog The Surly Times here