Martin O’Neill, in April 2010:
“If that situation [no investment in the team] did develop, that wouldn’t necessarily mean I would down tools and say, ‘Well, listen, we can’t go any further’. What you would do is see if you can come up with some other ways, then, maybe, through the academy here with the younger players coming through, maybe with a bit of trading here and there, maybe taking a risk with a major player transferred to sort things out. You wouldn’t just down tools. It’s not been my nature to do that. I couldn’t envisage that sort of scene — just throwing the toys out of the pram.”
Well Martin, that’s exactly what has happened. Randy Lerner’s recently released statement that he and O’Neill ‘no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward,’ combined with executive director Charles Krulak’s accusation that Martin was not prepared to balance the wages with the revenue of the club should leave people in no doubt that it was a financial dispute that has precipitated the Ulsterman’s departure. Which is really rather upsetting, here’s why:
For a start, O’Neill was in an extremely advantageous situation when he took the job, no, not because of the situation Villa were in, which was undeniably parlous – a reported take up of a meagre 12,000 season tickets, a squad rife with mediocrity, and a very real flirtation with relegation the previous year – but because he was the beneficiary of rich new owner who provided the perfect antidote to the parsimonious, trigger happy reactionary that was ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis.
Randy Lerner became the bench mark and paragon of foreign owners in football, not least when juxtaposed with the American’s George Gillet and Tom Hicks at Liverpool.
As they were brash and vociferously hands on, Lerner was taciturn and operated quietly behind the scenes; their plans were grandiose and unfulfilled, Lerner’s were realistic and implemented; Hicks and Gillets relationship erupted in chicanery, fulminations and ill will, not just with each other but their manager too, Lerner, on the other hand, was the phantom backer with the warm hand and the glad eye.
He supported Martin O’Neill in the transfer market significantly – not just for one year, or two, or three, but with nearly four years of investment, an amount nearing the £140 million mark – rivalled only by Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United in the last few years. So why the long face Martin?
Because there were other big cats in the jungle that’s why. Because O’Neill watched on aghast as Manchester City not only acquired superstars with an esurience that would make Florentino Perez uneasy, but because they poached – or are in the process of poaching – two of Villa’s best players: Gareth Barry and James Milner.
Any club in the premier league that does well, but not well enough to be able to overhaul its wage structure on the back of increased revenue and gates in the Champions League, becomes a feeder club; it’s one of the Premier League’s great unwritten fundamental determinants – thou smaller clubs with good players shalt be game for the bigger predators. It’s generally what occurs when capitalism and sport combine.
It happened to Tottenham with Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov, it happened to Everton with Joleon Lescott, it happened to Newcastle years ago with Andy Cole; it happened to Leeds with Rio Ferdinand, it has always happened and will always happen, just so long as larger clubs offer more money and bigger challenge. It’s not like Villa, and thereby O’Neill are innocent either.
So why ‘down tools’ to use O’Neill own words? It comes across as worse than merely giving up because it’s too hard; it resembles a kind of childishness. He’s like the rich kid who’s been cut off from his pocket money by daddy and instead of showing he’s worth more, that he can do better with less, and instead of relishing the challenge, he’s just refusing to play.
Why not do what David Moyes and Steve Bruce, and Roy Hodgson, and even Alex McLeish have done? Run a club on a shoestring budget and scout for players, look for bargains and bring on youth – all the very things O’Neill outlined in the above quotation?
Quitting because you’re not getting more money is downright pathetic when compared with someone like David Moyes.
O’Neill, without doubt, was in a privileged position, and he did well, you might say, very well – gradually improving the clubs point tally each and every single year and narrowly missing out on silverware in the Carling Cup and that coveted fourth spot and a place in the Champions League. And my first reaction on hearing the news as, I must confess, a Villa fan, was one of despair. But as the reflections and rationalizations have set in, it’s hard to argue that he was not without his faults.
His stubborn refusal to rotate players and use his full squad meant that the team, despite his public claims to the contrary, was always exhausted come spring. Its right there in the results – April was an atrocious month for the club in his whole spell there. He also seemed unwilling to scour the continent and take chances on flair players; the kind of technique and élan that would have added the very ingredient Villa were missing to make them a genuine top four side.
We’ll have some idea just how good a manager Martin was when a new manager takes his seat at Villa Park – the loss of Ashley Young would represent another major setback should he follow through with a desire to return to London and move to Spurs, but there are some good players at Villa Park and some talented youngsters too.
Nathan Delfouneso, Fabian Delph and Mark Albrighton can easily become an important part of the clubs future, and should Stephen Ireland sign in exchange for James Milner, we may just have the creativity from central midfield the team lacks.
But whatever happens it’s still a cosmic shit hammer of a blow to lose a manager this close to the start of the season, especially because it severely tarnishes the reputation of a man who’s built his career reveling in the role of plucky underdog and evincing the kind of bloody mindedness that would brook no surrender in the face of difficult odds.
He will struggle to find a job as good as the one he had at Villa, or one that gives him as good a chance as challenging the Premier League superpowers.