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No Happy Ending for Fairytale Romance as Sunderland Sack Martin O'Neill

03/04/2013 15:11 BST | Updated 01/06/2013 10:12 BST

Sunderland fans spent the better half of a decade dreaming of Martin O'Neill being in charge; after just over a year, it's turned into a nightmare.

The Northern Irishman's appointment was supposed to be a storybook wedding; it's ended more like a Hollywood one. There's no happy ending here.

Peter Reid. Howard Wilkinson. Mick McCarthy. Kevin Ball. Niall Quinn. Roy Keane. Ricky Sbragia. A succession of managers, permanent and caretaker alike, after all of whom the answer on the lips of many a fan was Martin O'Neill.

So, when Steve Bruce was sacked and the question was once again asked - 'who should get the job?' - the answer was much the same as ever. Only this time, the men in charge agreed, and O'Neill himself did as well.

Having spurned our advances back in 2006, in favour of taking the reigns at Aston Villa, the Black Cats had their man.

It was the perfect match, not just on paper but on the pitch as well. He said all the right things, and did them too.

He spoke of growing up a Sunderland fan, of Roker Park and Charlie Hurley. He understood the region, the passion, and, unlike his predecessor, the expectations. Not only understood them, but welcomed them.

His impact was almost instantaneous. A 2-1 home win over Blackburn, which featured a turnaround in the last 15-minutes, inspired by O'Neill, conducted on the pitch by James McClean - who had never featured under Bruce.

It wasn't just the results, there was a notable lift around the Stadium of Light. Fans had their optimism renewed; the players had their fire relit.

His first few months seemed to exist as if under a spell. There were great results and spectacular goals, packed houses and happy faces.

There was the famous New Year's Day win over eventual champions Manchester City, showing strength of character that had previously been missing. Scoring four past Wigan showed there was style to go with the substance.

A run in the FA Cup added to the mystique: magic of the cup, to go with the magic of Martin. How could anything possibly go wrong?

Go wrong it did, though. The purple patch developed into a nasty bruise, beginning with a defeat in the quarter-final replay to Everton.

It was not so much the defeat as the manner of it that showed the early signs of trouble in paradise. It was a truly horrific performance, with none of the spirit of the previous months. A wake-up call, back to reality.

A winless run meant a brief flirtation with relegation, although it amounted to little more than a cheeky wink, with not even the offer of a drink. In the end, it was a solid if unspectacular 13th place finish.

Past summers on Wearside had seen swathes of comings and goings, a huge turnover of players. That was not to be the case this time. A couple of key pieces were all that was required.

O'Neill got them, paying a hefty price too: £12m for Steven Fletcher, along with Adam Johnson arriving for £10m. A signal of intent, of ambition, and also of a long-term plan.

Everything at Sunderland seemed sweet, and it's difficult to see how things soured so drastically.

The season started well enough, with early signs of promise, in particular from Fletcher, Simon Mignolet and Danny Rose. A few players - Johnson in particular - looked off the pace, but patience was the key. Just give them time.

Well, time has now run out. The relegation zone has silently crept up on the North East outfit, who for so long - particular after another victory over City, this time on Boxing Day - had been looking up, not down; forwards, not back.

Sunderland have picked up just two league wins in 2013, and both of those came in January. Since then, O'Neill has looked like a man bereft of ideas. Where once there was fire, there was now naught but a few smoking embers.

He was once thought of as a manager ahead of his time. Now it's seemingly passed him by. His tactics seemed outdated, and his famous motivational skills - which worked wonders when he first arrived - were nowhere to be seen.

The timing of the sacking is peculiar, after an international break and a defeat to Manchester United, with an extremely tough run of games to come. Surely it would have been better to wait until the end of the season, but clearly Ellis Short felt that, by then, it would have been too late.

The partnership had made so much sense, but unfortunately these things don't always work out as they do in the stories.

The fairytale is over, what's left is a grim tale.