There are a few tell-tale signs in the behaviour of a manager who is under pressure and this week should have Sunderland fans concerned because we have seen nearly all of them from Martin O’Neill.
The former Celtic boss took charge of his first game at the Stadium of Light exactly a year ago, but all the goodwill (and good form) that followed his appointment has dissipated and no matter how the Black Cats boss dresses it up, he is fighting for his job.
In the week that his side slumped into the relegation zone, O’Neill’s public declarations have been that of a man who is not only struggling with his job, but struggling with the fact that people are questioning him about why he is struggling with his job and he has come out with all the usual guff that managers spout when under pressure.
Take umbrage in a post-match interview when journalist asks you if you doubt yourself? Check.
Bristle at criticism from a famous pundit by churlishly pointing out their managerial failures? Check.
Hark back to previous jobs where you performed better than you are doing now in a bid to remind everybody that you used to be better than you are now? Check.
Claim that not only are you the man for the job, you are the only man for the job? Check.
Short of saying ‘I’ll carry on doing my job and I’ll be here until somebody tells me otherwise’, O’Neill hit every cliché in the Beleaguered Manager Handbook, but his defiance doesn’t mask the rank bad job he is doing on Wearside.
O’Neill got off to a great start after replacing Steve Bruce 12 months ago, but the 22 points he took from his opening ten games now looks like a dead-cat bounce effect.
Since then, Sunderland have won just four of 26 games, the last three of which against teams that were reduced to ten men, and he seems unable to get any kind of performance from his players as abject display follows abject display.
And lying third bottom in the table, it makes Reading’s visit to the Stadium if Light a huge match in O’Neill’s tenure.
Rearranged from August after the match was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch, this looks every inch a relegation battle and to be honest I don’t want to back either team here.
Certainly not Sunderland at odds-on, anyway, and a price of 19/20 needs to be swerved. But as much as I want to be against the Black Cats, the 14/5 on Reading, a side who have won just once all season, is not the most appealing price and if I was backing a result, the draw would probably be it at 12/5.
But instead, my play is going to be the 11/5 that a match that promises to be a war of attrition – and certainly not one for the purists – sees under 1.5 goals.
Of course, Reading are in the bottom three themselves, have struggled since winning the Championship title in May and at the moment, look set to stay there until the end of the season.
The Royals seem to be regressing rather than getting better and going into Christmas is not the time to be on a four-match losing streak.
But with that in mind, Brian McDermott is going to go to Sunderland and make his team hard to beat, trying to frustrate a tense home crowd who have seen their side lose four and draw two of their last six home games.
And with confidence low in the Sunderland ranks, I expect another nervy night at the Stadium of Light and less than two goals is well worth a play.
O’Neill’s side have scored just six goals in seven home games and four of their last seven matches on their own patch have seen one goal or fewer.
That is exactly the same statistic for Reading’s away games and the Royals have struck just seven goals in eight games on the road.
Both teams have seen five of their 15 league games feature under 1.5 goals and I really think this relegation battle will follow that trend. At 11/5, it looks a good shout to me.