With 24 years management behind him, beginning in the Southern League at Grantham Town, Martin O'Neill is one of the game's most experienced and respected managers.
He has been considered for jobs such as England and Liverpool, and is regularly touted as a candidate to be Sir Alex Ferguson's successor.
However, in his 60th year, he finds his story embarking on a new chapter at Sunderland, once one of the greatest clubs in the land, but now with one major honour in 74 years. A boyhood Rokerite he may have been, but is this where O'Neill imagined himself a decade ago?
There is ambition and potential aplenty on Wearside and O'Neill, with his drive, intelligence and experience, could be the man to unlock it. Or it could all end, as at Villa Park, in mutual disillusionment. Either way this coming together of an intense Irishman, the Texan millionaire owner, and a club which longs to be back at the game's summit, looks as if it will be a defining partnership for all concerned. Most of all it should resolve the question: is O'Neill an outstanding football manager, or just one of many decent, but unexceptional ones?
O'Neill said yesterday he would like his team to play like Barcelona. If he does it would dispel one reservation. O'Neill's teams have tended to be functional rather than inspirational. They have pace on the flanks, a big striker, a solid back four protected by sitting midfielders and a reliance on counter-attacking and set-plays. Well organised teams playing this way can prosper, but only up to the point where they are expected to make the running, to take the game to opponents who are happy to draw. The onus was on his Celtic team in domestic competition but, with respect, O'Neill's high-tempo game was suited to the SPL and Celtic had much better, and often bigger, players than most opponents.
O'Neill's first task on Wearside is to stabilise the team and banish the spectre of relegation. He can be expected to start well, beginning with victory over Blackburn Rovers tomorrow. Sunderland have a competent squad, lacking real class and with some glaring weaknesses, but better than results suggest. O'Neill has identified confidence as the most immediate problem. This can perhaps can be extended to include a collective failure of nerve which would explain both the poor home form and the tendency to leak decisive late goals. Footballers generally respond to the arrival of a new manager whoever he is and O'Neill's infectious personality and generally excellent man-management, should provide Sunderland's players with the required self-belief.
The next steps, moving into contention for a place in the Europa League, then Champions League, will be more difficult. This is a team which has not finished in the top six since 1955 and the "Bank of England" team of Len Shackleton, Billy Bingham et al. Three years later the club were relegated, having been sanctioned by the Football Association in the interim for making illegal payments to players. In the subsequent half-century they finished in the top 10 three times.
With that history Sunderland know better than most that spending cash does not automatically translate into results (the Bank of England team failed to win anything). Nevertheless, wages normally correlate to finishing position and without investment O'Neill has little prospect of realising Ellis Short's ambitions.
He takes over with three weeks to assess his squad before the transfer window opens but January is never a good time to panic-buy and O'Neill does not need wholesale reconstruction. The significant recruitment will be in the summer.
At Villa, O'Neill spent heavily to get the team to sixth, but despite further investment the top four was beyond him. It will not be easier at Sunderland who, being in an economically depressed region, generate less income. On the last available figures (2009-10) their £54m wage bill was only the 10th highest in the division, but was still a very risky 82 per cent of turnover (£65m). Losses, for the second successive year, were above £25m. Like many Premier League clubs they are hugely dependent on TV income (which is why relegation cannot be countenanced) and, but for Short, the auditors effectively admitted, the club would not be a going concern.
O'Neill had his first look at the team he inherits at Molineux last Sunday, when they lost from a winning position at Wolves. He will have noted a goalkeeper with sharp reactions in Keiren Westwood, a tricky ball-player in Stéphane Sessègnon, whose best position remains unclear, a typically languid display from Nicklas Bendtner, a busy one from Kieran Richardson deputising at left-back, and much ordinariness. He must make one change tomorrow as Lee Cattermole incurred an untimely suspension. The combative midfielder may not find O'Neill as indulgent as Steve Bruce was, not that Craig Gardner, having been sold by O'Neill at Villa, will expect to retain a place.
Bendtner could prove a key player, if he is prepared to put himself about a bit, because O'Neill has usually opted for a big striker leading the line, but there is a shortage of the width, pace and height which usually characterises O'Neill's teams. He must thus either buy a new team, or reinvent himself as the Mackem Guardiola.
This may seem fanciful, but the shrewd O'Neill frequently surprises people. If he succeeds Old Trafford surely awaits; if not history may judge him as a talent unfulfilled.