Martin O'Neill has paid the price for not evolving



Just as it looked as though we'd welcome back the Premier League from the international wilderness with a fairly routine round of games, Sunderland chairman Ellis Short decided to flip open the little glass case marked 'Panic' and violently and repeatedly headbutt the red button encased within.

Before headline writers could even rhyme “departin'” with “Martin”, the change was made. The groove in the Stadium of Light hotseat, where not even three days ago a mucky pair of allotment tracksuit bottoms resided, is now fashioned around some very sleek Italian slacks.

The story now is of the new boss and his alleged political inclinations. Is he experienced enough for the job? Can a club which harbours such socialist values at its core ever really adapt to life under the wing of a man who describes Italy's greatest fascist as “basically, a very principled man”? Does it even matter anyway? Smarter writers than me will surely tell you.

When the announcement was made though, the carcass of Martin O'Neill's Sunderland tenure was still warm and twitching. Nobody had the time for a thorough autopsy, and now that there's a brand new pantomime parading the touchline, there's seemingly no inclination for one either. But with merely seven games to stave off a potentially ruinous relegation, Di Canio has to very quickly work out where his predecessor was going wrong.

So what's the problem then? The chairman's very generously put his hand in his pocket for the players that were deemed a priority; they've got an exciting goalkeeper, an experienced back line, a combative captain, and a goalscorer with the handy knack of scoring goals; and they draw a fairly big and fiercely supportive crowd. Unless the catering staff are leaving the pasta in too long then there's only the manager who can have the finger pointed at him.

Fans of both Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester City regard Martin O'Neill as their most successful manager of all time. He led Celtic to a period of astonishing domestic dominance, and he got Aston Villa to within touching distance of a top four finish. His reputation at the time of his appointment was, on the surface at least, well deserved. Sunderland fans tend to be a pessimistic bunch, but not even the most dour of supporters would have imagined that 18 months into the job they'd be teetering on the brink of self-destruction.

His problem, in short, is one of evolution.

Since Martin O'Neill first took a managerial post in 1990, football has changed a lot. Since he lifted the League Cup with a much unfancied Leicester City side, football has changed a lot. Since he shook the hand of a victorious Jose Mourinho after Porto had shattered Celtic hearts with an extra-time winner in the UEFA Cup Final, football has changed a lot. But most importantly of all though, since he walked out on Aston Villa not even three years ago, football has changed a lot. In 23 years, Martin O'Neill hasn't changed at all.

A self-confessed acolyte of Brian Clough's brand of football, O'Neill is arguably the last high-profile manager to believe in this very British way of orchestrating a team. Buy domestic, pay big, get them in two banks of four, and motivate the life out of them. Be strong in the challenge, get it into the box for the big lad to plant his head on, and don't worry about this tactical nonsense.

In the last few years we've seen the abandonment of 4-4-2, the popularisation of the diminutive midfield wizard, a need for so-called “ball playing” defenders, and a realisation that between-the-lines movement is vital. Sunderland, by contrast, are an appallingly static team, playing an outdated formation with Titus Bramble at the back and nobody in the middle with the guile to fashion an opening. They've looked as modern and progressive as an old boiler - and about half as fun to watch.

O'Neill's philosophies served him fantastically at his previous clubs, and if he'd taken the reigns at Sunderland some five or six years ago they'd probably be sitting comfortably in midtable now, with one eye on a surge for Europe. But his stubbornness to alter his thinking has not only cost him his job, but might well cost Sunderland their future.

When Alex Ferguson eventually calls it a day, we'll talk long into the night about what it was that kept him at the top of the game for so long. He didn't routinely outsmart his opponents, he wasted a lot of money on failed transfers, and he hasn't pioneered some new way of coaching. But his ability to understand how football changes, and to build teams that can adapt to it, has been unrivalled – ruthless, almost.

Whether or not Di Canio's got the tools, the nous, or the personnel to keep Sunderland in the Premier League remains to be seen, but at Swindon he demonstrated an impressive tactical flexibility and a pragmatic mind. It's a huge gamble on the part of Mr Short, but if watching the former manager stick to his guns while everything collapsed around him has taught him one thing, it's that the only way to survive in this game is to embrace change when it's needed.

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