Martin the water dragon has magic touch this year
As a new lunar year begins, the English Premier League's most famous water dragon has every reason to feel optimistic about the months ahead.
Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill (pictured) turns 60 on March 1, which means he was born in the previous Year of the Water Dragon, along with cricket legend Viv Richards and former world No1 tennis player Jimmy Connors.
The astrological forecast for water dragons is for a flamboyant period with new beginnings and good fortune, along with some ups and downs. That could mean O'Neill will continue to prosper in charge of the club he supported as a youngster.
The Ulsterman took over just seven weeks ago and has guided the Black Cats from the cusp of the relegation zone into the top half of the table. Already he has recorded more than twice the wins of his predecessor, Steve Bruce, having overseen five fewer games.
Now he is aiming to steer Sunderland all the way to Wembley in the FA Cup as he prepares his side to face second-tier Middlesbrough in a fourth-round tie tomorrow. Having twice won the League Cup as Leicester City manager in the 1990s, he has privately challenged his players to lift England's most prestigious knockout trophy.
Dragons are known to be full of charisma, vitality and strength, and it does seem that these qualities within O'Neill have helped transform what appeared to be a demoralised dressing room, despite a summer of big spending that saw the likes of John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Connor Wickham, Nicklas Bendtner and Craig Gardner move to the Stadium of Light. They've lost just twice in nine games under O'Neill.
'Martin's arrival brought a winning mentality to a squad that had turned very negative under Steve Bruce,' said a Sunderland insider. 'He speaks with each player individually on the morning of the match and tells them how good they are. He encourages them to go out and express themselves.'
Things started to fall apart for Bruce after the 2-1 loss to Arsenal on October 16. Sunderland were facing a vulnerable Gunners' team who had experienced a run of poor results, yet Bruce adopted a strangely cautious approach.
'Bruce's idea was to hold Arsenal at bay for 70 or 80 minutes when he thought the crowd would get on their backs and then hit them on the break,' the insider said. 'But Sunderland went 1-0 down in the first minute. It appears after this match he lost the dressing room because he did not listen to his senior men.'
On his arrival, O'Neill sent a memo to each of his players telling them the slate was clean and everyone would be given a chance to show what they could do. Watching the reserves play for the first time, he removed James McLean at half-time and drafted him straight into his top side. After having been largely ignored under Bruce, the former Northern Ireland under-21 winger has become a key, regular starter.
Defender Titus Bramble, who had been told he would never play for the first team again after allegations of sexual assault, has also been recalled. Bendtner and midfielder Lee Cattermole were both arrested after incidents last year, but have received their manager's support. 'Innocent until proven guilty and everyone gets a chance is O'Neill's motto,' the insider said. 'Cattermole is the one player who's improved the most. He thrives on the passion that O'Neill has for the game and would run through brick walls for him.'
Passion is a word that seems synonymous with the former Celtic and Aston Villa boss. He's played down his schoolboy days as a supporter of Sunderland, but it certainly doesn't hurt when it comes to endearing O'Neill to a club that was established in 1879.
'The Sunderland faithful get very excited when they see O'Neill jumping around and celebrating like a fan whenever the team score,' the insider said. 'Many of the old timers see his appointment as a consolation for not signing Brian Clough as manager all those years ago.' The word is that O'Neill accepted the Sunderland job without discussing personal terms.
It was former Ireland and Black Cats striker Niall Quinn who put forward O'Neill's name to replace the unpopular Bruce. Quinn was Sunderland chairman until he stepped down in October amid a tense climate on Wearside to take care of international development at the club. But now there are rumours that the lanky ex-Arsenal forward could return to the top job.
Already Quinn is putting plans together for a Sunderland tour of Asia this July, with Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong the rumoured destinations.
In a region where the northeast England club are considered a tough sell, O'Neill's mere presence will certainly help ticket sales. Even with outstanding players like Stephane Sessegnon and Sebastian Larsson on the field, O'Neill is now arguably Sunderland's most recognisable name around the world.
This feisty Water Dragon is less than two months into a three-year contract, yet he's already made a massive impact. By setting the squad's sights higher, he's turned meek under-achievers into players who would run through walls, if not breathe fire, for him.