Martin O’Neill: A Class Apart

I think next year will be exciting and worthwhile, and I look forward to it…

On Wednesday afternoon, Randy Lerner delivered the crucial end of season press conference, behind closed doors – a session which most media sources would have had us believe that change was nigh, that the rain clouds were coming. On Wednesday afternoon, reporters gathered to watch the empire fall; to conclude a so-so fairytale where the hero would not prevail. But on Wednesday afternoon, our commendable four year progress promised it would not stall. On Wednesday afternoon, our beloved U.S chairman ensured that modern day Aston Villa would not peak at the humble heights of last year’s ‘nearly season’. And on Wednesday afternoon, Martin O’Neill had pledged yet another season to the midlands cause; casting aside the dark clouds of conspiracy, banishing the poisonous fibs of timid journalists back beneath the same rock they love to hide under, and restoring hope that both himself and Mr Lerner, and now the masses of Villa fans, believe.

Chinese whispers would have us thinking that MON and Lerner share a futile relationship; that the Northern Ireland man demands serious, serious bucks but that his American colleague will not comply – that the ‘dough’ isn’t available. I have argued that the implementation of transfer funds is critically vital if we are to keep up with the lavish spending spree of our Tottenham and Man City counterparts. But despite Harry Redknapp splashing in excess of £70m in his 18 months in charge of Spurs; Villa find themselves just 6 points adrift, 2 victories. And even though the Citizens could afford to dish out the guts of £125m in just 2 transfer windows, one season; the claret and blue side of Birmingham lies just one win behind. And as Martin O’Neill accepted the challenge of a fifth campaign at a club where the chairman has expressed that Champions League qualification is the aim, it is quite clear that one of two things has happened in the boardroom: Either Lerner read my blog last week and agreed that an injection of wealth needs to be invested into the first team; or O’Neill has seen enough of both his own squad and the rest of the league to believe that the current rate of progress at Villa is sufficient enough to secure glory in 2010/11. I hope that both of the above has taken place. And the fact that this deal was agreed more than 3 months in advance of the new season makes me think that both have taken place. Either way, the important thing is that we did not crucifix the messiah and have yet another year to follow him closer to the Promised Land.

After recently questioning the transfer performance of a certain Mr Benitez, I came into some serious criticism from loyal fans of the Merseyside club (http://backpagefootball.com/info/premier-league/talkin-bout-a-rafalution/) who put their 4th trophyless (and let’s be honest, unimpressive) season down to injuries, poor form and of course the crippling venom that is Hicks and Gillett (no way could “Rafa” be at all responsible for any of their downfalls). Strangely (and rather embarrassingly) though, the Pool fans began to focus on the unflappable performance of Aston Villa supremo, Martin O’Neill; attempting to suggest that I was somewhat hypocritical if I didn’t realise how poorly MON’s transfer policies have held water. Even if Aston Villa’s signings have been sub-standard (which they haven’t been), does it really matter? I was criticizing how badly Benitez has performed in the transfer market, but the Scouse reaction with a “you’re just as bad as us” mentality seems to be an admission that my damning critique was not too far off the mark. Moreover, the article, which was also posted on this site, sparked another Rafa defender to let his guard down by taunting that O’Neill hadn’t signed with Liverpool “yet”. If Benitez is in fact the all-powerful-oracle, Liverpool’s great hope; why on earth would someone be shouting for the arrival of our current manager to replace him?

But one comment which really got under my skin was the following:

I want this man to go do the same with Martin O Neill’s facts and figures in the transfer market before he puts the Villa boss in a bracket ahead of Rafa as a transfer dealer…

And so, delighted to, I obliged…

As if it would be absurd to even hint that Martin O’Neill is more astute than the Reds gaffer when it comes to wheeling and dealing in the transfer window.

One scouser made an erroneous claim that MON had recorded a greater net spend in his 4 years than “Rafa” had in his 6, and I thought I would start by putting this to bed early: O’Neill’s transfer spending has created a loss of £84.2m for the club, whereas Benitez has brought £95.8m into the red for Liverpool. Not only this, 79% of Villa’s spending has taken place in just the last 2 years – giving Benitez an almost 4 year head-start on our main man.

(A lot of these stats have been brilliantly presented by Dan at http://www.astonvillacentral.com where I was pointed to by a Pool fan thinking it would back up his claim that O’Neill has not done well. I was confused to say the least because all I found was further confirmation of the ‘MON-effect’)

Ignorance is a tragic thing, however, and it’s truly upsetting to see that football fans cannot think for themselves. Constantly quoting Paul Tomkins (a Liverpool writer who I have plenty of time for) as gospel to their football beliefs, a lot of Pool fans refuse to acknowledge where Villa have come from – and more importantly, where Liverpool have come from in the same time period. When Martin O’Neill decorated his office at Bodymoor Heath in 2006, Aston Villa were languishing agonizingly close to the relegation zone in 16th place and the cup final draught had been extended to six years. Conversely, in the summer of 2006, Liverpool were newly crowned FA Cup kings and champions of Europe just one season before. From a distance, it would be too easy to recognize that Villa, whose 4 most capped players the following year were Sorenson, Barry, Aaron Hughes and Steve Davis, have done exceptionally well to now finish above a Liverpool team who, four years previously, already boasted the likes of Carragher, Hypia, Alonso and Gerrard.

Under a microscope, to decipher the transfer performance of Martin O’Neill, in a closer inspection, would similarly produce the same positive results. Because as MON entered the realms of ambiguity when he accepted the Villa post, he would later have to get rid of a spectacular 33 players to get to where we are today. What is more interesting is that just 4 of these players were his own signings (one of which was the unfortunate retirement of Chris Sutton). That means, out of the 28 players he brought to the club throughout his time in charge, a massive 85.7% of them are still registered as Aston Villa players – which is undeniable testament to both the obstacle O’Neill faced in throwing out our enormous chunks of dead wood, and in bringing in players to produce effective results.

On the contrary, out of Benitez’s first 21 signings, just 3 of them are still on Liverpool’s books (giving the gaffer a bemusing 14.2% success rate with his first batch of imports). And results speak for themselves as O’Neill managed to hurl The Villains from relegation danger to one point above our opposing Merseyside giants in just 4 years (and even out of the 4 players MON had to sell on – we still made a profit of £850k).

Of course, Villa’s squad is still blessed with the likes of Habid Beye and Marlon Harewood who should, and hopefully will, be sold off this coming window. But these players have contributed (albeit very little) to our squad to help us get to where we are now and the laws of natural evolution will deem such fringe players surplus to requirements as the Villa machine grows in search of bigger and better things. Other rumored departures like Heskey (please, God) and Shorey have also added depth and competition to our first team as O’Neill used all his artillery to turn us from pitiful nobodies into genuine cup and top 4 contenders.

Furthermore, with still a humble £12m as our highest ever spent fee on an incoming signing, Aston Villa are mere babies when it comes to wrestling in the transfer ring. With a severely restricted wage budget compared to the rest of the top 7, we are over-performing every year. And even Benitez and all his boardroom trouble has had the ability to splash in excess of £20m on world class players… and Aquilani. Struggling to even touch £100m of incoming revenue, Villa earned £28.8m less than Spurs in the 08/09 season – whilst the traditional top 4 all reel in at least £100m more than little Aston Villa. Lying in 8th place behind 7 English teams when it comes to annual revenue, it should be ridiculous to claim that Villa have a chance of Champions League qualification. Yet, it isn’t. Why? Martin O’Neill.

Working within the confound of a £12m transfer cap and the restrictions of a meek wage bill, O’Neill has managed to uncover real talent and persuade them to take up residence at Villa Park. Now, every week, we are honored to witness the likes of Brad Friedel, James Milner, Ashley Young and John Carew (all of which amount to just £23m – the same price as City spent on Joleon Lescott) pull on the villa badge and push us closer and closer to the most unlikely of feats: European Qualification and cup success in the 21st century.

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