Alex Ferguson has turned up the mind games on Martin O’Neill ahead of today’s Sunderland v Manchester United clash at the Stadium of Light.
Last season’s fixture ended with Manchester United believing that they had clinched the Premiership title only to find out about Manchester City’s injury time winner against QPR which snatched the title for their noisy neighbours.
Naturally that set off some celebrations and taunting by Sunderland fans with Ferguson the last person in football to forgive or forget.
United look to have this season’s title in the bag while Sunderland seem to be drifting dangerously close to the relegation zone.
A dozen years ago O’Neill was widely discussed as a possible successor to Ferguson but now faces one of the toughest tasks of his managerial career as he attempts to find the points to keep Sundereland in the top flight.
Trips to Chelsea and Newcastle follow the visit from the champions elect with O’Neill’s options closing rapidly with Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole.
The relationship between O’Neill and Ferguson has never been warmer than tetchy with the Old Trafford pensioner offering no sympathy for his dug-out rival.
“It’s not an easy position to be in and the horrible part is that good teams go down in these situations,” Ferguson offered.
“There have been great examples over the years. Forest had Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane, Nigel Clough, Des Walker – a team of internationals – and yet still went down.
“When you’re down in that area of the league, it’s very difficult to get a run of wins together.
“If yo u work out the average points per game you can get from the start of January, it’s usually only about a point and a half and in some cases they don’t get anywhere near that. Losing Fletcher, a key player in terms of goals, and Cattermole is a blow for Martin when you’re in that dogfight at the bottom.”
There is one criticism that O’Neill finds harder to accept than any other and that is that he’s lost his mojo.
The passion and drive that drove Celtic to a treble against the genuis of Dick Advocaat, the self styled little general, followed by the final of the UEFA Cup taking care of Blackburn and Liverpool on route.
At Aston Villa the emotion was still there but after more than a year out of the game everything has seemed a little stale since the Irishman took over from Steve Bruce at Sunderland.
“If you are expecting me to step in to a press conference after performing in the manner we did against Norwich and be jocular then you would tell me I needed my head examined,” O’Neill responded to the question of his own demeanor.
“Am I as determined, enthused, about the game? I don’t analyse this every day, and after every game, but actually, yeah, it is the enthusiasm you have to have for the game – otherwise, don’t do it.
“If you are to ask Sir Alex Ferguson what keeps him going at the age he is – obviously going in to work with a brilliant team does help – but it’s that incredible enthusiasm he has, that he retains, and I think you have to have that. The minute you lose that…”
O’Neill added: “If we lose I cannot be smiling within half an hour of the game. By the time I have analysed it, done the press conference, had small talk with the opposition manager for an hour or two, then you have to get yourself up. You have to.
“I don’t know who was saying I was downbeat. That’s their opinion.
“I heard some people saying our performance against Norwich wasn’t ‘a Martin O’Neill team.’ It is very easy to say, ‘That is a reflection of how he is feeling’, but I am not sure that’s true.
“If you are telling me that I am downbeat, I don’t see it in that manner. Am I cracking jokes every three minutes? No, I’m not doing that.”
Last week Sunderland posted losses of £27m, relegation to the Championship would be no laughing matter.
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