Sometimes I look at the trajectory of Martin O’Neill’s career and wonder why he didn’t land another top job after leaving Celtic. He was the hottest property in football while he was in Glasgow, almost joined Leeds United (then a top side), while he was short odds for the Liverpool manager’s job at each annual crisis on Merseyside. At the time Ferguson at Manchester was talking about retiring, had he gone, Martin would have moved to Old Trafford.
In 2003 he met Mourinho in the Uefa Cup final. The Portuguese had some of the finest footballers of that generation at his disposal, unquestionably a better collection of players than Celtic, as their Champions League win 12 months later would prove, but Porto were pinned-in for long spells in the second half and required (literally) every trick in the book to prevail.
Despite losing, O’Neill did better with the resources available to him than Mourinho.
After a few meritocratic years at Aston Villa, where he spent more than the club could afford, but delivered a better team than they would otherwise expect, he left a day before the season kicked off, apparently unhappy Villa’s budget was being curtailed.
Without meaning offence to Sunderland, I was disappointed when he pitched up there. Martin O’Neill was surely a manager who should be competing for league titles and in the Champions League. His early form at Sunderland was transformational but it was a transformation built on fragile foundations.
Those founds’ have now disappeared, Sunderland sit two places above relegation. Their play is recognisable from how Celtic played a decade ago, and how Leicester played in the 90s. Opponents know what they get from Martin’s teams, so they know how to prepare for them.
Martin’s former players talk about his inspirational qualities not his tactical incision. It’s hard, if not impossible, for a manager of a major club to master all the attributes required in the job. The successful ones realise this and delegate.
One of the frustrations we had with Martin when he was at Celtic is his reluctance to indulge the scouts. We signed former Leicester players, players who featured on Match of the Day, or players from other SPL clubs. The Wanyama, Izaguirre, Kayal-recruitment model, players signed with greater trust in the scouts and limited supervision from the man at the top, would never have happened under O’Neill.
The technical side of the game is perhaps even more important than recruitment. Great football systems, clubs and countries develop from one coach doing something sensational. Successful tactical changes are then studied and copied, but how do you study and learn from a system that’s not utilised against you, or on TV, when you are manager of a large club? You can’t, on your own.
Instead you have to deploy the systems you already trust and used to get yourself the big job in the first place. Or you can tinker a little, or use what, for the want of a better term, we’ll call a technical research team. People who can say to the manager, “A club in Romania is doing something really clever, we should try it”, without being frog-marched off the premises.
The lesson of evolution is that it is not the biggest, strongest or healthiest who thrive, it’s those who can adapt to a changing environment. The list of great managers who end their career in humiliating relegation is longer than the list of greats who regularly discard their tried and tested formations and become early-adopters of successful new systems.
‘By any means necessary, Journey with Celtic Bampots’ by Paul Larkin, is now available at Lulu and other outlets. Paul charts the remarkable events the Internet Bampots became embroiled in since 2008.
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