It was his dream job, to manage the club he supported as a boy growing up in Northern Ireland. But after Sunderland slipped closer to the relegation zone thanks to 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on Saturday, Martin O'Neill's time in charge at the Stadium of Light was brought to an end (via Safc.com)
It all started with a dramatic leap in the air as an injury-time winner secured a win over Blackburn Rovers in his first game in charge last season. But it all ended in a whimper with just one shot on target—in the 90th minute—at home to Manchester United.
So what went wrong for O'Neill? And how did it get to the point of being sacked with seven Premier League games remaining and Sunderland sitting just one point above the relegation trap door?
A lack of goals and a lack of imagination and creativity, particularly since the turn of the year, has seen Sunderland go from a potential top-10 finish to being Championship-bound.
A run of no wins in the last eight games and only three points picked up in the same period appear to have been the final straw for owner Ellis Short.
Although O'Neill was still working with a vast chunk of former manager Steve Bruce's purchases, his own activity in the transfer market has largely been unsuccessful.
Only striker Steven Fletcher, with his 11 goals since joining from Wolves and, at a push, free transfer signing Carlos Cueller and loanee full-back Danny Rose, have been successes.
The summer's marquee signing Adam Johnson has been disappointing since his switch from Premier League champions Manchester City, while January capture Danny Graham has yet to find the net since joining from Swansea City. His arrival has coincided with the poor run of form, just as midfielder Alfred N’Diaye’s has.
Injuries have counted against O'Neill throughout his time at the Stadium of Light, particularly in defence, but no more so than former manager Bruce suffered with.
It is the lack of ideas and creativity and the natural conservatism of his tactics that have been O'Neill's downfall. His insistence on playing players in unfamiliar positions has also contributed to his fate.
Sebastian Larsson, the club’s best crosser of a ball and one of the best in the Premier League, has been utilised in a central midfield role since the arrival of Johnson, and midfielders Craig Gardner and Jack Colback have spent time operating as full-backs.
The lack of pace has been all too evident too with Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean, two of the quickest in O’Neill’s squad, failing to hit the heights they achieved last season.
All of that has contributed to just 33 Premier League goals in 31 games and just nine different goal scorers in total.
Defensively, Sunderland have the second best record in the bottom of half of the Premier League behind Stoke City. But they have required a clean sheet to secure five of their seven wins, underlining O’Neill’s inability to change a game when going behind.
O’Neill’s time at Sunderland has been spent without his regular sidekick John Robertson, who had been by his side throughout his managerial career. It appears not being able to bounce ideas off his trusted man was a crucial factor.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Larsson’s late winner against Blackburn Rovers in O’Neill’s first game in charge kickstarted a run of seven wins in his first 10 games in the Sunderland hot-seat including a memorable 1-0 success over Manchester City.
From being troubled by the threat of relegation when O’Neill took charge, Sunderland finished 13th last season despite failing to win any of the last eight games.
That appeared to be the start of the demise of O’Neill as the current season started with just one win in the opening 10 games.
A run of five wins in eight games in December and January—including another 1-0 win over Manchester City—looked to have turned around Sunderland’s fortunes, but they have not won since overcoming fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic on Jan. 19.
O’Neill was dealt another blow ahead of the Manchester United defeat with Fletcher sidelined for the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury suffered on international duty with Scotland. Captain Lee Cattermole was also ruled out for the rest of the campaign.
And O’Neill, who won 16 of 55 Premier League games in charge of Sunderland, paid the price for the poor run of form and a 14th Premier League defeat of the season. It was the first sacking of his managerial career, as his dream job ended 16 months in.