Alan Pattullo: O’Neill not second-best to Di Canio

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Sorry to return to 1 April, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? It must be. A football club that presumably wishes to be treated as a serious outfit, even though it pays David Miliband £125,000 for 15 days’ work a year as a director, has sacked Martin O’Neill and replaced him with…Paolo Di Canio.

This has to be an April fool, surely. It is certainly hard to believe that O’Neill’s career has crashed to the extent that Di Canio’s fiery brand of management is deemed to be preferable by Sunderland to the Northern Irishman’s pragmatic and studied ways. Just ten years ago, O’Neill led Celtic to eight wins in their last ten league and cup fixtures en route to what perhaps still stands as the high-point in his managerial career, the Uefa Cup final in Seville.

He was only 51 then, and many felt it was only a matter of time before he landed the plum job in British football, at Manchester United.

A combination of Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity and O’Neill’s possibly eccentric career choices seems certain to have nixed this ambition. After a sabbatical to care for his ill wife, O’Neill is paying for his decision to return to football with a club like Aston Villa, who have for so long proved stubbornly resistant to being re-awakened, even when handed the benefit of American owner Randy Lerner’s short-lived largesse.

And when O’Neill walked away from Villa Park, Sunderland were another odd choice of club with which to try and re-affirm his managerial credentials, even given his support for them as a boy.

Now 61, it’s horrifying to think that someone who proved so impressive in Scotland and in his early career in England is reckoned to be at risk of disappearing from the game altogether.