The boyhood Sunderland fan was the overwhelming choice among the vast majority of those on the terraces, while he also boasted the faith of those in the club’s hierarchy.
He didn’t need to be ‘sold’ to the public.
It was a refreshingly straight-forward, obvious appointment that whetted appetites about something special happening at the Stadium of Light.
Ultimately, O’Neill’s reign ended in stagnation, of course.
But fast-forward to the present and Lee Congerton isn’t blessed by a situation where there is one obvious, appealing, realistic option, where a deal solely depends on agreeing terms financially.
The only candidate who ticked all the boxes for both supporters and the club was Dick Advocaat and that ship has sailed.
With Advocaat out of the reckoning, there isn’t a perfect option who the public are hankering after.
A snap poll on Twitter this week on who fans would realistically like to see in the hot-seat resulted in replies of a dozen different names in the space of 10 minutes – David Moyes (the one who had most nominations), Michael Laudrup, Sam Allardyce, Sean Dyche, Roy Keane, Phillip Cocu, Martin Jol, Mark Warburton, Steve McClaren, Paul Lambert, Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo.
That is the root of the problem.
Congerton is not going to suddenly magically conjure a candidate who everyone approves of. The only one who did was Advocaat.
In the week since the Dutchman rejected Sunderland’s advances, every supporter seems to have expressed a contrasting opinion.
On the plus side, that means a host of options, compared to March, when sacking Gus Poyet would have left Sunderland in the lurch if it hadn’t been for the inspired decision to appoint Advocaat.
There are an abundance of possibilities out there - half-a-dozen of that list of 12 are currently out of work for a start.
But quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, and there are pros and cons to each of those available.
Moyes would probably be the most popular choice among supporters and is a candidate who has his supporters on the Sunderland board.
Certainly, his tenure at Everton provides encouragement that he could replicate that success at a similar sized club, without a bottomless pit of money.
However, the Scot has publicly declared his eagerness to remain in Spain with Real Sociedad and it looks a brick-wall before Sunderland even begin to tempt him.
Unlike Moyes, Allardyce is very much available and despite leaks to the contrary, is understood to be interested in taking the Sunderland reins after leaving West Ham.
Allardyce would hardly whet the appetite, but he would stabilise Sunderland at a time when they desperately need stabilising above any other objective.
But with Sunderland keen to persist with a head coach and director of football model, Allardyce struggles to fill that template.
He will inevitably want more control of transfers than purely a final say.
Bookies favourite Dyche is a realistic target and is understood to have his admirers at Sunderland after being considered prior to the appointment of Poyet in 2013.
The link with Dyche has not prompted an abundance of enthusiasm among supporters this week. Quite the contrary in fact.
But while Dyche isn’t a ‘name’ that gets the saliva glands flowing, he is very highly-rated in football circles, has brought the maximum out of the players at his disposal and has experience working on a budget.
That’s what Sunderland need, isn’t it?
Yes, there’s a relegation on his CV, but so too does Roberto Martinez, who has overcome that stigma at Everton.
The suspicion is that Dyche will be just one of a number of candidates that Congerton considers over the next few weeks, with Continental options also on his radar.
Congerton consulted with his European scouting team on Advocaat’s appointment and with the ex-head coach now also helping out in finding his successor, Sunderland could well be in store for a fourth successive overseas coach.
While Congerton realises that the pressure is very much on to name a new head coach swiftly – both in time for pre-season, and to make the necessary reinforcements in the transfer market – Sunderland also have to make sure that the new man is the right man.
Whoever Sunderland get, there will be reservations.
There will be gaps on his CV or episodes which will prompt question marks from the doubters.
But the immediate popularity of Advocaat’s successor may ultimately be irrelevant.
If he finally ends this constant cycle of relegation nerve-shredding and the fear of falling into the Championship, then he will instantly win the public over.