Sunderland, Carlton and the drive to succeed

I write as an unnerved supporter of Sunderland (English Premier League) and Carlton. Overnight, Sunderland’s owner American business identity Ellis Short dismissed Martin O’Neill as manager. This followed a dreadful run of results.


O’Neill has had a storied career, first as a player and for the past 20 years as a manager. As a player he captained Northern Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals, and he was an integral part of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest team, which in the late 1970s won the division II and Division 1 titles in successive seasons. Forest then won the European Cup in successive seasons, with O’Neill playing in the 1980 win.


As a manager, he enjoyed outstanding success with Wycombe Wanderers, Leicester City and Celtic, and (qualified success) with Aston Villa.


He lasted just sixteen months at Sunderland; after a promising beginning which took the club to an unusually high 9th place in the EPL, the current season has dashed the optimism of fans. Three draws, five losses from the past eight matches have led inexorably to Saturday’s post-game termination, with Sunderland facing serious danger of relegation from the Prem. This period has of course seen a lot of debate about whether the game has passed O’Neill by. Better judges than me regard his tactics as inadequate for contemporary competition. He had a reputation as a great motivator, but his critics now suggest that even in this respect his reputation is no longer justified, and that perhaps the fire in his belly no longer burns so vigorously.


Why might this be relevant to Carlton? O’Neill is just eighteen months older than Carlton’s recently-appointed coach, Mick Malthouse. While Mick had his sabbatical in season 2012, MON has had two breaks from management (motivated partly by nursing his wife through severe illness). MM has arrived to an environment where there are (perhaps unjustified) expectations of imminent success. Like O’Neill, Malthouse is acknowledged as a  successful coach over a long period at multiple clubs (25 years cfd. 20 years) and is reputedly an effective motivator.


Does the fire burn for Mick as fiercely as it did in 1984 at Footscray, 1990 in Perth and 2000 at Collingwood? In the context of rapid advances in tactical sophistication in recent years, is Mick able to adapt his methods to meet the challenges of the contemporary game.


I’m confident that he’s smart enough; yet there are questions in my mind as to whether the combination of the intensity of his motivation, his capacity for re-invention, and his ability to inspire will suffice for the current Carlton playing list (which itself may not be good enough) to achieve the success that fans crave.


Following the narrow (but decisive) loss to Richmond, next Sunday’s engagement with Collingwood represents a critical challenge.



About Peter Fuller

Male, 60 something, idle retiree; Blues supporter; played park/paddock standard football in Victoria's western district until mid teens, then Melbourne suburbs; umpired for approximately 20 years (still engaged on light duties - occasionally fieldie, regularly on the line). I thank the goddess at least weekly, that I was born and grew up in the southern States of Oz, so that Aussie Rules was my game from earliest childhood. I still love it with a passion, although I can't pretend to a thorough understanding of the tactical complexities of the contemporary game.


  1. Steve Fahey says

    Interesting piece Peter.

    I have always been a MON fan and reckon that EPL clubs are far too quick to give their managers the bullet. Although Sunderland have been in wretched form recently, until then they have had one of the tightest defences, albeit have not been that interesting to watch. They simply don’t have the resources of the bigger clubs, and will always be in Strugglesville in the top flight.

    I guess Sir Alex is the flip side to your argument -he’s still going strong, but has the considerable advantages of lengthy incumbency and the strongest club in every sense of the word.

    Too early to say with Mick yet – clearly he has been an outstanding coach and he has stayed closely involved in the game in his year out of coaching so won’t have missed much, and will have freshened up mentally. The Blues are not renowned for their patience with coaches so he will need to produce results reasonably quickly.

    I wish that I could wish you good luck for the AFL season, but you’ll have to turn to one of our other former RMIT colleagues. In a department that was heavily stocked with Blues fans, I must have slipped through the recruitment net !

  2. Peter Fuller says

    I understand your unwillingness to wish the Blues well. I always thought your gig at RMIT demonstrated that you were obviously an outstanding prospect to have overcome the selection committee’s preferences for those of the Navy Blue faith!

    I agree that sack the manager (or coach,here) is all too often the first rather than the last resort of a desperate board/owner. Di Canio has been given a very difficult task – minefield matches looming, players’ confidence shot, and results an absolute imperative with the threat of relegation, which in current circumstances is such a financial catastrophe.

    Obviously the EPL is a permanently stratified competition, with multiple subdivisions. The height of a Sunderland’s ambitions would be say 6th and involvement in the secondary European competition, the Europa Cup. Even some wealthy clubs find it difficult to remain competitive, witness Liverpool, Arsenal and even Chelsea now struggling to keep pace with the two Manchesters and especially United. The Swiss Ramble is a splendid source of information about the extent of the non-level playing field in Europe as well as England. The lopsided nature of major football in Europe makes the challenges facing our Bulldogs, Demons or Port Adelaide seem a comparative doddle -n which is not to say that the inequities of AFL aren’t significant.

    There does seem to be a sense that O’Neill’s heart wasn’t in the task recently (difficult to assess at this distance, obviously), but it is highly likely that Mick won’t want for motivation, at least in the short-term, and especially next Sunday!!!

  3. Thoughtful piece. Thanks Peter.
    I always enjoy Ang Postecoglou when he is on Offsiders talking about sport beyond soccer. The other week he was reflecting on the coach’s role. He made me think about how the coach’s day to day actions and attitude (behind closed doors) are generally the most tangible reflection of a club’s direction.
    The unexpected successes of the first round of AFL footy were Port and the Bulldogs.
    To my eye, Kenny from Camperdown has channeled the old Port Adelaide Magpies/Foster Williams “us against the world” mentality. They may be short on class, but they won’t be short on ferocity and effort this season. Hinkley has the ‘old dog’ experience to carry that message convincingly. It is a cold eyed ruthlessness. Not a confected one turned on occasionally for dramatic effect.
    At the Bulldogs, Brendon McCarthy always carried that solid, humble air like a Glen Ford Marshall given the job of cleaning up a dirty town. He knows how to bring young men with him on a daunting journey across Indian infested territory. I thought it might take him 5 years to get the Bulldogs competitive again, but he may be ahead of schedule.
    So the coach is the prophet leading the lost tribe to the promised land, but he has to be authentic while tailoring his message to the group he leads. My question with Mick is whether the Blues group he has inherited have the size and stomach for his tough, defensive game style. It may be too late to teach an old coach new tricks, or for him to shape a playing group that fits his mould.

Leave a Comment