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O'Neill too focused on Cats future

TEAMtalk guest Michael Graham believes Martin O'Neill's focus on Sunderland's future has negatively impacted on their short-term health.

Last Updated: 19/03/13 at 14:10 Post Comment

Martin O'Neill: Seems to lack a short-term plan

Martin O'Neill: Seems to lack a short-term plan

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What on earth is going on at Sunderland? If I had a pound for every time I have been asked that by someone over the last couple of weeks I wouldn't be a rich man by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd be able to treat myself to a fairly decent fish supper.

Abject football and disappointing seasons are nothing new to us Sunderland fans. Remember we are talking about a club who set a record low Premier League points total one year then returned two years later to break it.

Yet, even to us, the current situation at the club is tough to stomach.

In the past there has always been a clear and concise reason behind the failure. A no-hoper in the dugout, a skinflint chairman, or quite often both. There was at least a degree of comfort to be found in the presence of an easily-identifiable bad guy.

This season, however, what excuses can be found?

The manager, Martin O'Neill, has a genuine pedigree and has a more than sufficient track record to suggest he knows how to construct a football team.

The chairman, Ellis Short, has backed every manager with serious money. In fact, the American is by far and away the greatest single benefactor in the club's entire history.

The squad itself is far from ideal, but with the likes of Steven Fletcher, Simon Mignolet, Adam Johnson, James McClean, Danny Rose and Stephane Sessegnon to call upon, there should be no serious threat of relegation either.

Following the dismal failure to even create any kind of pressure against 10-man Norwich, though, that threat is looming over the Stadium of Light like a spectre and, with a daunting run of fixtures to come, it is unlikely to abate any time soon.

So what has gone wrong? At the start of the season it all looked so simple. The team would be compact and tough to beat, and rely on their talented attacking individuals to sneak enough points to secure relative Premier League comfort.

It wasn't inspiring or exciting, but it was working. There was a steady drip of points and you felt reasonably comfortable starting the plans for next season.

Maybe that is the root of the problem. Perhaps O'Neill allowed himself to become locked into a false sense of security, because what followed has been an abject lesson in the dangers of reckless abandon.

The over-reliance on the goals of Steven Fletcher was lamented, and then his role within the team tinkered with.

Stephane Sessegnon was hailed as a free-spited maverick who is central to Sunderland's attacking threat, and then shoved out wide and asked to track full backs back into his own half.

Alfred N'Diaye was signed to add the "athleticism and vitality that sometimes we're missing", and then dropped in favour of diminutive Mr Nice Guy, David Vaughan.

Meanwhile, despite complaining about a dangerous lack of numbers in squad, the January transfer window was used to strip it down even further. Fraizer Campbell, James McFadden, David Meyler, Ahmed Elmohamady, Ji Dong-won and Louis Saha were all allowed to leave the club, with Connor Wickham sent out shortly afterwards.

Wickham aside, those players may not be the future of the club, but they were certainly short-term options.

O'Neill's hatchet job on the fringe players was delivered with such savage effect that a single injury to an attacking player recently rendered a holding central midfielder the most positive potential change from their six-man substitutes bench at Queens Park Rangers.

Clearly, O'Neill has a long-term vision for Sunderland and is preparing for a big summer on Wearside during which he hopes to put his own stamp on the squad.

"I have [bought] only four players for the football club. If we see this season through and look to really improve the squad next season, I think that is what we're looking to do. If we do that we can try and push on from there. We are trying to do something if we can in the summertime," insists the Northern Irishman.

Right now, it is looking like a huge gamble, but I can understand the temptation. Great gambles can reap great rewards, after all, and if I am perfectly honest then the courage to look beyond securing survival on an annual basis and take a long-term view is something that has been sorely lacking from Sunderland managers for far too long.

But it isn't the quality of the long-term plan that worries me - it is the apparent total absence of a short-term one.

For me, O'Neill is still the right man for Sunderland. I think his track record alone entitles him to the right to make the ends justify the current painful means.

For the moment, though, he is playing with fire, and the club is at serious risk of suffering some very needless and costly burns.

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