As everybody can see, the bottom has well and truly fallen out of Aston Villa Football Club. Another gutless performance and the inevitable defeat against Stoke left me with a real hankering for better days and, in particular, much better players. Indeed, there is a definite bewilderment from people that the club was finishing sixth in the Premier League as recently as 2010, which just shows how far we have fallen. Our consistent sixth-place finishes under Martin O’Neill seem so much further away and we would be eternally grateful to have another one of those seasons now. In fact, just a season without the threat of relegation would be nice.
Whilst the joy of finishing in sixth place right now would be akin to the joy I’d feel if Kelly Brook walked past me in the street, stopped and asked me out for a date, most supporters were clamouring for even more. The media would have us believe we should just have been grateful for what we had and be thankful for our lot; we’re only Aston Villa after all.
Even now, I can’t help thinking we missed out on our one big chance to become an established footballing powerhouse again. We were right to expect more.
There is certainly, in my opinion at least, a real myth and distortion surrounding the O’Neill era, which is largely due to our current plight. The story goes that we were left in the lurch when O’Neill left a few days before the 2010-11 season was about to kick off. The catalyst was the impending James Milner transfer to Manchester City, combined with a tightening of the purse strings by Randy Lerner.
Our view of Lerner at present is that he has sucked the life out of our great club. However, I remember feeling at the time that he was completely within his rights to restrict the money being given to O’Neill and I still believe so.
The amount of money wasted by the Northern Irishman was staggering. Looking through some of his signings, his expenditure amazes me. This is a man who shelled out £8.5 million on Nigel Reo Coker, around £10 million on Curtis Davies, £5 million on Steve Sidwell and who bought Nicky Shorey for £4 million. It wasn’t just the transfer fees that required scrutiny. In the long term it was the wages that ended up crippling us for years to come. We had distinctly average players like Habib Beye picking up £40,000 a week and Luke Young on almost £50,000 a week. Our wage bill had spiralled to £71 million per year at the point when O’Neill hung us out to dry.
It is the combined total of £7.5 million in transfer fees that was spent on the potent strikers that are Emile Heskey and Marlon Harewood that best highlights my problem with the O’Neill era; we were a prolific striker away from being a top four side and getting those Champions League places.
In the four seasons in which O’Neill went on his spending spree, he brought in just four different strikers: Heskey, Harewood, Sutton and Carew. Sutton was a free signing from a recently relegated Birmingham City side, who had scored once in ten appearances for the Blues. Carew’s was a swap deal involving Milan Baroš. He rightly became a firm fans’ favourite and I won’t say a bad word about his contribution during his time with Villa. He regularly succeeded in reaching double figures for us yet he was never what you would call a prolific goal scorer. With Gabriel Agbonahor chipping in ten to thirteen goals a season around this time also, we were comfortable in attack. Nevertheless, we missed a real twenty goals a season man to help us to push on.
Whilst goals are the most valuable commodity in football and come at an absolute premium, I can’t help thinking that if O’Neill hadn’t wasted so much money on squad players who barely featured due to a preference to, by and large, use the same eleven players each week, we really could have been more ambitious at this time and filled in the missing part of the jigsaw.
To this day I do not know the thinking behind signing Heskey or Harewood. Neither would ever be the player that would catapult us into the top four. Why did we even bother with players like these two?
The millions we spent just culminated into waste – Shorey, Sidwell, Heskey, Harewood, even the dribs and drabs of a couple of million here and there on such players as Beye and Routledge. All of those players earned incredible wages. If only that money had been spent on one big transfer to really signal our intent, O’Neill could have given us the one thing we needed most.
Realistic targets at that time included Robbie Keane, who would have been perfect in his prime. Although he flopped with his move to Liverpool, Keane showed his worth to us during his short stint on loan during our more troubled time some years later.
Frustratingly, Darren Bent would probably have been perfect for us had we bought him a couple of seasons sooner direct from Tottenham Hotspur. Clearly low on confidence and marginalised by Harry Redknapp, Sunderland’s faith in Bent was repaid in goals aplenty, with the striker netting twenty-four times in the 2009-10 season. I cannot help but think what he could have done for us in a team that wasn’t in the midst of being dismantled.
A more leftfield choice would have been Diego Milito, who was banging in goals in La Liga for eventually relegated Real Zaragoza for several seasons. Once relegated in 2008, a season at unfashionable Genoa, where he had joined Zaragoza from in the first place, followed and was fruitful in terms of goals. A big money move to Inter Milan came a year later. Somewhere in this journey and with the teams mentioned (with the exception of Inter Milan), an approach from Villa wouldn’t have been ridiculous.
To O’Neill’s credit, he added quality too with Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing being three of his successful signings and giving us a real attacking threat.
Yet the myth that surrounds O’Neill is staggering. The media hype, especially from the BBC, for him is biased and his shortcomings as a manger do not seem to affect his reputation, despite an underwhelming fourteen month stint in charge of Sunderland.
The relationship between Villa fans and O’Neill is extremely bittersweet: we cannot deny that he gave us four successful years yet the manner of his exit leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. I find myself irritated that his role in the demise of Aston Villa Football Club is being largely ignored by those outside of the club and the fact that his legacy is being viewed so differently – he either gave us our best years in recent memory or is responsible for the beginning of the mess we’re in now.
Lerner, of course, is culpable also. Perhaps a better educated footballing man wouldn’t have let O’Neill run riot for so long. The contracts and wages would certainly have been kept under greater control, but we were cash rich and everyone knew it; we had to pay the overinflated demands. I can’t help but think of Lerner just completely trusting O’Neill’s judgement, even with a growing wage bill, perhaps being afraid of losing our manager and just letting things slide out of control until it really did reach breaking point. Whilst our situation is absolutely horrendous now, I do think it took a big step from Lerner to say no to O’Neill, knowing he would depart through not getting his way. It would have been easy to have kept on chasing. People compare our club to Leeds United but, whatever we may feel about Lerner, at least we do not have the financial burden and troubles that the Yorkshire club went through once Peter Risdale had gambled on securing Champions League football.
It could all have come together so nicely had we just had one prolific striker in those four seasons. We’ve had examples of them either side of O’Neill’s reign – Juan Pablo Ángel circa 2004 and Christian Benteke in 2013. Perhaps, in Darren Bent, we’ve even had the man who could have been that missing piece; he just arrived a year or so too late. That’s Aston Villa Football Club for you. It just never quite all comes together.