O’Neill sacking true head-scratcher

For anyone whose memory goes back more than three or four years, the sacking of Martin O’Neill is a real head-scratcher.

This was the coach it seemed just about any soccer club would want: Mr. Reliable but more than that, the guy who could not just organize winning teams but charm television audiences with a self-deprecating wit that nicely complemented his crazy gymnastics in the dugout.

Everybody liked O’Neill. He was refreshingly different. Having studied law at Queen’s University in Belfast before playing for, most notably, Nottingham Forest, he retained a keen interest in criminology, researching celebrated trials of the past and often traveling to London to watch court proceedings from the public gallery.

But he was also remembered as an international player, a wide attacker who had captained the Northern Ireland side that reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 1982. Two years before that, he had won the equivalent of the UEFA Champions League with Brian Clough’s Forest and, when he entered coaching, a lot of the Clough magic appeared to have rubbed off.

O’Neill started by taking little Wycombe Wanderers into the Football League for the first time and then getting them promoted. After a short spell with Norwich, he went to Leicester, who had three successive top-half finishes in the Barclays Premier League and won the League Cup, earning two seasons in European competition.

The next move was north to Scotland, where Celtic did a domestic treble in his first season, retained the title twice and even reached a UEFA Cup final against Jose Mourinho’s Porto. Already O’Neill was being tipped for the very top, associated with, among others, Manchester United, where it had been felt – incorrectly – that Sir Alex Ferguson would step down on or soon after his 60th birthday.

But then O’Neill’s wife Geraldine became ill with lymphoma, he felt compelled to take time out of the game to help her through the process of recovery. By 2006, she was well enough to permit his return to soccer at Aston Villa, where he recalled that the club had been a European champion in 1982 and declared: "That is the dream."

It never came true. O’Neill did, however, do well enough with three consecutive sixth-place finishes to suggest that his partnership with chairman Randy Lerner was a template for clubs striving to break into the Champions League stratum. Another perceived plus was O’Neill’s taste for English players like Ashley Young and James Milner, whom he added to the home-reared Gareth Barry and Gabby Agbonlahor.

Economic reality, however, reared its unwelcome head when Barry and Milner went to sample the new riches of Manchester City (to be followed by Young when he chose Manchester United). But still O’Neill’s stock was high. He had been tipped for the Liverpool job – though it went to Roy Hodgson – shortly before he quit almost on the eve of the 2010-11 season. The assumption was that Lerner would not fund a run at the next level up.

The fresh challenge of Sunderland presented itself in mid-season and, having supported the club from the North-east as a boy, he could hardly resist. Because of O’Neill’s popularity, even neutrals got excited about this – I remember speculating that O’Neill might do for Sunderland what Kevin Keegan, the black-and-white messiah, had done for deadly rival Newcastle in the 1990s. But again there was disappointment in the end. Indeed there was never the hope he had engendered at Villa Park.

Despite heavy spending this season, especially on strikers – Stephen Fletcher, Danny Graham and Connor Wickham cost a total of $35 million – the goals have not been flowing. Although Fletcher has done well, he suffered an ankle injury on international duty with Scotland last week that will keep him out for the rest of the season.

The soccer has been largely sterile and, in the end, darkness fell over the Stadium of Light when, shortly after the weekend defeat by Manchester United, it was announced that O’Neill had been relieved of his post by chairman Ellis Short. At 61, he is not accustomed to the sack and it remains to be seen how quickly the erstwhile favorite seeks to return. He and Geraldine have, after all, faced more important issues than the best way to take a soccer club forward.

The Black Cats announced late Sunday evening that Paolo Di Canio would replace the fired O’Neill and signed a 2 1/2-year contract with the club. Di Canio faces a real challege at Sunderland who are dangerously close to the relegation-threatened bottom three with only seven Premier League games to play and the first of the bonanza seasons imminent. From next season, a new television deal will guarantee even the lowliest teams more than $90 million a year. That’s why coaches keep going.

Apart from the perennially bizarre case of Chelsea, where Di Matteo gave way to Rafa Benitez, there have been changes at Southampton, whose ex-coach, Nigel Adkins, has turned up at Reading to replace Brian McDermott. And, of course, Queens Park Rangers, where Harry Redknapp took over from Mark Hughes.

Welcome to the madhouse that is the Barclays Premier League.