By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 2, 2011) US Soccer Players — If the reports describing Martin O'Neill's move to Sunderland a done deal prove to be true, it's an interesting decision from both parties. O'Neill has been the next great manager for over a decade, the media's regular candidate whenever a high profile job comes open. That's not Sunderland, obviously. How O'Neill fits with a struggling club could turn into one of the most interesting stories of the 2011-12 Premier League season.
You might recall that O'Neill's time at Aston Villa ended with his resignation over available transfer funds. He believed he needed more money to keep pushing the club up the table. They were 6th in his last season, something that wouldn't be lost on any struggling club making a change.
O'Neill's name is almost a reactionary response when a job might open. Is your illustrious manager considering retirement? O'Neill is a hypothetical candidate. Did your team just drop yet another chance at three points? Wonder what O'Neill could do? He's held that shadow manager role in the minds of fans of multiple clubs for obvious reasons. He's supposed to be the next great manager.
That dates all the way back to when he was in charge of a massive club in a small league, O'Neill's Celtic years. At one point, he was supposed to takeover Leeds United when it was Leeds threatening to disrupt the Arsenal-Manchester United lock on championships. Pick an elite club, and it's likely that at some point O'Neill was linked with their job.
Part of the problem for a manager like O'Neill is the lack of coaching changes at clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United and the lack of fit with clubs like Chelsea and Liverpool. Remember, O'Neill was linked with the Liverpool job that eventually went to Roy Hodgson. That was an experiment in hiring a coach that had done surprisingly well with a club that was in the bottom half of the table financially. Imagine what a manager capable of turning over that economic disadvantage could do with money to spend. It didn't take long for Liverpool to decide they knew the answer and make yet another change.
Meanwhile, O'Neill chose to stay unemployed. That's become an interesting part of his story, letting what at least in the media's appraisals were opportunities simply pass him by. It's a situation most managers won't allow themselves to end up in. We've seen managers take jobs that were never a good fit, lose them or move on, and spend seasons hunting for what they already had.
Resisting that urge has become a key component in the O'Neill story. What he might see in Sunderland becomes a very good question, full of the kind of speculation that wouldn't be happening if he hadn't emerged as a willing candidate. After 13 games played, Sunderland are two points above the relegation zone in 16th-place. All three newly promoted teams are ahead of them in the standings. It would take a substantial amount to salvage the current situation and turn it into a respectable finish. This is a club that very much looks like one that will need significant time to get to where O'Neill had Villa.
It's worth repeating that O'Neill quit Villa over an unwillingness to spend after leading them to three consecutive 6th-place finishes. His first season in charge, he got them up from 16th to 11th. With Villa, O'Neill ended up needing a handful of points to do even better.
Though you can always argue that the same handful of points in the other direction drops them a couple places down the table, O'Neill was well aware that points in the Premier League carry a price tag. Reduce the spending, and barring a whole lot of luck you're not going to be finishing sixth or higher the next season.
O'Neill's resignation was a pragmatic decision based on experience. This isn't college sports where the coach stays for decades knowing he'll be rebuilding recruiting class after recruiting class. Premier League managers are supposed to want to be dynasty builders.
Again, that returns us to the situation at Sunderland. What the rest of the Premier League – especially those clubs at or just outside the bottom of the European places – need to be asking themselves is what O'Neill is seeing.
It's not an issue of getting the kind of commitment he lacked just before the start of what would have been his fifth season at Villa. Not yet anyway.
What happens should O'Neill end up needing money to push Sunderland past that 6th-place barrier several other clubs have encountered is a question for another season. Right now, it's about stabilizing a club and beginning to build.
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