The Aston Villa side which won the Coca Cola cup in 1996 was a good team; a solid defence marshalled by the dogged Paul McGrath and two highly promising youngsters in Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate, was supplemented by a midfield comprising the likes of Ian Taylor and Andy Townsend, and fronted by the nonchalant, foreign elan of Dwight Yorke alongside the maddeningly inconsistent, but talented, Savo Milosevic.
In those days, Brian Little orchestrated consecutive top 4 finishes for Aston Villa, which would have been recognised far more had the current Champions League format been existent. They were perhaps without the flair and creativity that characterises the current Villa midfield, but in terms of obduracy and ability to put the ball in the net, they were not that different from Martin O’Neill’s current side. All of which, may serve to put Martin O’Neill’s recent claim that this is the best Villa side in 20 years into some perspective.
Although, in terms of the future, he is right. O’Neill’s ethos since taking over at Aston Villa has been to sign and blood players who largely exhibit three basic properties: that they be 1. Proven in the Premier League 2. Young and from the UK and 3. Have pace and power.
The cultivation of UK players has been done largely in the interest of fomenting team spirit, a hallmark of all of O’Neill’s sides from Leicester to Celtic, and a vital element of any successful team – something that the likes of Real Madrid have often ignored to their detriment.
Transforming Aston Villa in this manner, has been a wonderful riposte to those at the FA who deemed him unfit for the England job a few years ago; not only is he proving his worth in the modern day Premier League, but he is doing it with a selection of English players who are not necessarily first teamers in the England squad. Whether this is the result of some madcap, genius plan for revenge is up for debate, but its also moot: the fact is, he is proving he would have made a fantastic England manager. After all, Sven’s stint in the premier league was solid but ultimately unsatisfactory, which could be an epitaph for his time as England manager.
Signing players who have experience of the Premier League is a good philosophy, for in the case of players like Richard Dunne, and Stewart Downing, risk on outlay is comparatively low, but this strength of O’Neill’s has also become a weakness in his bid to break the top four. Unlike an Arsene Wenger, or even Steve Bruce when at Wigan, O’Neill’s reluctance to take a tangible risk on foreign players, probably because of the potential impact to team spirit in the event of failure, has meant that Villa lack a real marquee name to go alongside the promising players they already possess.
Milner’s switch to the center has worked well, and he has an eye for the sharp ball or reverse pass, but what Villa lack, is a flair center forward to go alongside Gabriel Agbonlahor. Someone who can drop deep, turn and dictate play running between the lines of midfield and defence in the manner of a Wayne Rooney or Kaka.
The late Agbonlahor chance against West Ham was a good example of the lack of a killer instinct in the side, and contrasts sharply with the goal Fernando Torres scored with the last kick of the game at Villa park a few weeks ago, or even Fabregas’ virtuoso performance on Boxing Day. Dwight Yorke in this Villa team would have been a perfect foil for Gabby Agbonlahor, allowing him to play on the shoulder of the last defender in the manner of Andy Cole at United, but it seems unlikely that Martin O’Neill would have taken a gamble on a young, unproven talent from a foreign country.
Bar a slight tendency for the defenders to play the ball long, Villa are definitely on the right path, and O’Neill is easily one of the best managers in the league, but to take the club to the next level he may have to step outside his philosophy and take a gamble on unearthing a gem or buying an established overseas star, and the first step in doing that is to win some silverware and emulate the success of Brian Little and his team, before they can be remembered as better than them.