By Alex Netherton & Andi Thomas
Context is everything. Next to a side playing well, or at least a side winning, Martin O’Neill’s hoppity-skippity touchline manner is both endearing and apposite. But next to a side as flat as this Sunderland, a team sinking slowly and inexorably into something that looks an awful lot like a relegation battle, it seems incongruous and strange.
In truth, it’s a wonder he can do anything but sit with his head in his hands, whimpering. The whole side reeks with a hopeless sadness, players playing so far within their own ability that we half suspect we’re watching a reality television joke. First a cheeky voiceover—’We swapped an entire Premier League football team with lookalikes for one season … with hilarious results!’—and then footage of (fake) Sunderland losing 2-1 to Norwich inter-cut with (real) Adam Johnson trying to wrap his head around double-entry bookkeeping, (real) Stéphane Sessègnon landing a plane, and (real) Sebastian Larsson weeping with rage as his soufflé collapses.
This being the (fake) modern world, and you being an educated and clever reader with a lovely haircut, it behooves us to look for reasons more complex than ‘everybody’s playing crap’, which is a shame because we’d like to knock off early. But that in itself is the strange thing. O’Neill—whatever you think of his frequently cavalier approach to signings or his occasionally roundheaded approach to tactics—has built his reputation around the ability to make players play at or near the best of their ability.
Play an O’Neill team and, so the theory goes, you should run into a side that has been alchemised into something more valuable than its base components. That’s what he did at Leicester, at Celtic, and at Aston Villa for a bit. That’s why he was linked, perhaps fancifully, with both Manchester United and Arsenal, the former as recently as last season by at least one organ of repute. As managerial talents go, his is one of the most precious. Yet his Sunderland are, at the moment, the precise opposite; their players aren’t quite gold, but they’re certainly a reasonably shiny collection of baubles, and yet here they are, hands on hips, transmuted into leaden lumpiness.
Some credit needs to go to Norwich, of course. Chris Hughton is doing what O’Neill isn’t, and his nailed-on certainties for relegation from some in the press are quietly going about their business, making prognosticators look silly. And there was poor fortune too—isn’t there always?—and spells of second-half dominance and a hilarious missed open goal. But these are all the familiar components of that staple of any Premier League season: the inexplicably rotten medium-sized club slump.
Were football simply a business of of totting-up the talent, Sunderland wouldn’t be in seventeenth place. But then, if it were, you wouldn’t be reading this, we wouldn’t be writing it, and nobody would bother watching it. Whether that would be a better world is for you to decide, but here in this one, O’Neill is squirming. It’s only a matter of time before somebody, somewhere, says that they’re too good to go down; in fact, it basically happened at the beginning of this paragraph. Oh, Martin!
As we touched on last week, Sir Alex Ferguson, in amongst all his acquired silverware and erstwhile perch-knocking, has done some terrible things in his life. But his decision to introduce Chris Smalling after half an hour of the game against Reading plumbed new depths of ignominy. You can claim that the change made sense since Manchester United were being heavily monstered at set pieces. You can claim that it worked since they conceded three goals before the change and none afterwards. But you’d be missing this point. This isn’t about football. This is about making Rafael—that gorgeous, glorious, barely-legal sexpot—cry. Too far, knight of the realm. This time you went too far.
Talking of going too far, Roman Abramovich really is now provoking his captive audience quite magically. Last week, he appointed the roundly-disliked, roundly-shaped Rafa Benítez to right the wrongs of the current Chelsea side. Obviously, Abramovich is responsible for most of those wrongs, having owned the club for a decade. Benitez is a stop-gap appointment, loathed by almost every Chelsea fan. Now, some people are saying that this is just another example of Chelsea fans lacking class, coming so soon after their curious/racist decision to defend John Terry and abusing the brothers Ferdinand. But in fact, this is a rare occasion when Chelsea fans are in the right—what possible excuse is there to appoint a knackered old nonsense man, particularly one plainly in love with another club? Still, at least they aren’t going to give Avram Grant another job! What!? Dear Lord, Abramovich really is the troll under Stamford Bridge.
Finally, Arsenal, who are imploding at a fascinating rate. But spare us any notion that this was a surprise. We’ve known for ages that they struggle against foreign sides playing tiki-taka.