The myth of Martin O’Neill and what could have been

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.



  1. Can’t argue with any of that , but I can add to it . O’Neil almost certinly left knowing what was & did happen with KMac’s 1st game in charge at Newcastle when he had to field a team comprised largely of the also rans from the squad as most of MON’s regular starters were on the treatment benches . Something I’d been predicting would happen as many had been running on “fresh air” due to playing whilest not 100% fit . But that was MON’s thing in psyching players to perform even when they were not fully fit to do so
    The other thing I remember was watching a Chelsea v Villa reserves match on Chelsea TV in which the commentator kept appologising for their poor performance by saying “but Villa are the Champions” . And yes the Reserve team were winning trophies . Yet the players who were wining the trophies were allowed to rot instead of progressively being introduced to the 1st team

  2. Alex,

    You really need to move on from Martin O’Neil.

    It would be helpful in your assessment of him if you looked carefully ! at his managerial record with all ! the clubs he has managed, and of course the recent achievements in International football.

    Although I am biased Martin O’ Neil is a fabulous manager who like all managers spend money , some work out and some don’t. You just need to look up the motorway to see how much it can take to build a team and even then nothing is guaranteed. Aston Villa are a great football club who should not be in this position in my opinion, there has been huge amounts spent on players, managers and salaries since the days of Martin O’Neil yet you seem to have a selective memory on this. lets hope this fantastic club can turn the corner as soon as possible,they have great fans and deserve Premiership football.

    • Sorry Jim but you’re wrong.

      MON’s managerial record is no better than average, he did well with Leicester, he did no more than was expected in the 2 horse race that was the SPL, he brought Villa to a similar level to where he brought Leicester but he couldn’t step beyond that, he spent a fortune building a squad of largely average players but he couldn’t spot the talent that would break into the top 4, he had an entirely forgettable spell at Sunderland and IMO has done no more that expected with Ireland especially when you consider a team of far inferior players, Nord Iron, topped their group to qualify for the Euros.

      I’m Irish and am delighted he’s managing the country as he’s a really good organiser and motivator of players, unfortunately he’s also ultra conservative when it comes to team selection, and this is particularly bad when it comes to identifying and signing players. MON should have been fired after 2 seasons at Villa when it became apparent he couldn’t make the break through to CL, having said that who knows what idiot Lerner would have appointed if he had been given the opportunity.

    • Hi, Jim – thanks for commenting.

      I have moved on, I just wanted to look at something different to the usual drudgery that we write about week in, week out. This article was more of a ‘what might of been’ look at things and just something different to the current situation.

      I don’t think I’ve been selective and have acknowledged his successes in the transfer market also. I just think that the only strikers signed during his tenure (Heskey, Harewood and Sutton – plus a swap for Carew) really limited our achievements. I just think that that was the difference between us being nearly there, finishing 6th, and actually breaking through into the top 4.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, and to make matters worse he wasted our best youth talent in memory – selling Cahill cos he thought Zat Knight was a better option… Also let Steven Davis go for a pittance.

    Don’t forget the great value for money we got from:
    Cuellar – nearly 8 mill
    Collins – 5 mill
    Dunne – 6 mill

    • Agree totally that all the club’s problems today can be traced back to him. In my opinion one of the dodgiest men in football, I absolutely loath him. You ask why did he sign players like Heskey and Harewood. Focus on about half a dozen of his particular buys and sales and in my opinion they have all the classic features of transactions motivated by the manager’s financial self interest. Nothing illegal about what he was doing but, in my opinion, ethically highly questionable when the club and its supporters are expecting so much more. In my opinion the man was an opportunist and a chancer taking advantage of supporters’ trust. Let me know if you wish for a more complete insight into and analysis of this excuse for a football manager.

  4. I agree with some points you’ve made but feel that it is very easy to blame O’Neill for what we didn’t achieve. However, what did we achieve in that time?

    1) Exciting, attacking football.
    2) High league finishes, cup runs, European nights.
    3) Various players making the England squad.
    4) It was fun to be a Villa fan.

    Compared to the dross served up now, the four years under O’Neill were a world away. We were going along quite nicely until the likes of Man City came along and blew everyone out the water financially. Lerner knew he couldn’t afford to maintain the same level of spending and tightened the purse strings.

    We all have our opinions and there is obviously no right answer. Try and remember the good times positively, as it might be a while before they are back.

  5. Oh Martin, oh Martin, oh Martin. We were lovely to watch in those days, and I loved looking down seeing old Martin jumping up and down like an excited child every time Milner crossed the ball into the opposition box.
    If only Randy could have backed him more, I feel we could still be 6th place or thereabouts.
    It’s so upsetting seeing us get thrashed every game and watching all my ‘family’ walking out early or not even turning up. American man, you really have destroyed our famous, famous hugely historic club. Get out now!

  6. It is clear that the problems started when O’Neill was there. You have given a pretty fair assessment of what went wrong. I’d just like to add that along with the damage caused by signing players like Cuellar, Davies, Reo-Coker, Heskey etc for over inflated prices, I think the departure of players such as Steven Davis, Craig Gardner and Gary Cahill has proved just as damaging. These players were not considered good enough by O’Neill yet here they are still doing well in the Premier League nearly 10 years on, whereas Reo Coker and Heskey have ended up playing for the likes of Montreal Impact and Newcastle Jets. Even after 10 years these players would be an improvement on what we have right now. Just another example of gross mismanagement at circus Aston Villa.

  7. I think this is a great post. Some good comments as well. I have to say I agree with the post and I agree MON is where things began to go wrong. Let’s not forget MON was a Deadly signing but Lerner, for whatever reason, was not able to challenge MON’s decisions, in particular in recruitment. You do outline some fantastic signings in Webcam, Downing, Milner, Carew (and of course we already had Barry). But for all those great signings (Friedel & Stan as well), there were so many more on massive wages and fees (NRC, Sidwell, Shorey, Cuellar, Knight, Davies, Harewood, Heskey, Warnock, Beye) and that’s what crippled us in the long run. Mind you, it’s important to consider we sold Webcam, Milner and Downing for substantial profits, but we shouldn’t have needed to sell them. Mellberg I understand, Juve for swan song.

    Lerner will have had a business plan in which would have been his balance for player signings, wages and a timeframe as to how those budgets were going to be effective. He clearly trusted MON. The vast sums spent on really average players and the hyped wages they’re on should have alerted Lerner much sooner that his balance sheet wasn’t going to match his timeframe. At the very least hire someone who is a ‘football man’ to provide advice. Instead he hired Faulkner.

    So while I have a very bitter taste when thinking about MON and the way he left us. I do think he owed us more than to leave like that. I can understand he was frustrated and at the end of the day he was asking Lerner to buy someone and getting a yes, it’s not his fault Lerner said yes.

    It therefore all comes back to Lerner. He trusted MON with his plan but if he had a strict budget for this 3-4-5 year plan and you can see it’s disappearing, he should have acted then. Instead he waited too long and went cold turkey. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe by MON’s exit. Only 6 months later we signed Bent for £18m under Houllier (plus Makoun for about £5m). It smacks of lack of foresight.

    It’s all Lerner’s fault. He had grand, ambitious plans for us but his execution was poor and that’s no one elses fault but his.

    Now he has a sell on value of approx £130m. Get relegated (£60m in the bank from TV?) Parachute payments of c.£40m for 3 years. He can sell for £80m and pocket the TV money. New owner has a bargain and parachute money. End of an era. Good riddance Lerner… just hopeful of a genuinely interested and focused new owner next.

    We will be back! UTV!

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