Category Archives: Martin O’Neill

FAO Andy Gray

I’m disappointed…

Of course, I’m still deeply saddened by O’Neill’s departure; I’m frustrated and confused at my sudden change of opinion of our once beloved American owners; but I’m more disappointed at the careless (and convenient) inaccuracies being spouted about the media in an attempt to brandish our former (oh! That hurt) manager as a childish villain (and not the claret kind).

Yes, I make no secret of my obsession for the Northern Ireland legend – but I haven’t held O’Neill on a high pedestal for so long on a random whim. I’ve studied his performance, I’ve admired his achievements, and I began to respect his every word. And so, when I see a certain Mr Gray sitting behind his Sky Sports News desk criticising MON and kidding himself that his Google stat search is ample support, I’m more disappointed than surprised. I’m in no way surprised at Andy’s erroneous laziness (why should I expect a top television pundit to conduct a bit of valid research?), but I’m disappointed that some of us lay people have bought in to his tripe.

Mr Lerner has indeed been a great owner and had every right to tighten his purse strings for one transfer window (I’ve said this before), but when Gray attempts to vaguely explain that O’Neill has spent “something like” £120m of the American’s money, he led a lot of fans down a deceitful blind alley where unwarranted questions were raised as to how MON has been so immune to criticism (even if £120m was spent, this sum is still miniscule when compared to the lavishness of our closest competitors Spurs and Citeh). Martin O’Neill did indeed record an outgoing expenditure £123.85m for the club (if Gray is wondering), but after the sale of Nicky Shorey, the Ulster man is responsible for a NET spend of just £81.2m throughout his 4 years in charge. That’s merely £20m a year to bring a club in dire straits from 16th place to become top 4 challengers in today’s impossibly difficult money-mad football world.

Additionally, even if MON had spent enormous chunks (as being exaggerated by supporters from other clubs, and within our own unfortunately), he was still told by his employer that he would be allowed access to any money he raised through the sale of players – but now, all of a sudden, he isn’t granted such ‘privileges’. As the board, you cannot lie to your manager who is considering a new contract, and you certainly cannot fill his head with empty promises as he looks to discover how he can take his team forward.

On the 14th May 2010, Randy Lerner claimed that Champions League qualification was the aim for the season ahead, (http://www.goal.com/en/news/9/england/2010/05/14/1924753/aston-villa-owner-randy-lerner-we-are-aiming-for-the ), yet he expected his manager to perform such miracles within the limitations of a sell-to-buy policy. But O’Neill accepted the challenge and obliged – he knew that he would lose his best player for a second consecutive season, but he was unshaken. But less than 3 months later, MON was pushed over the edge – and we learned that something even more constraining than what was originally made public had been concealed from the former Forest player all along. And Martin O’Neill resigned. 12 weeks after putting pen to paper on a new contract.

Evidently, the timing of his departure is devastating. And maybe O’Neill wasn’t entirely thinking of the (overly critical) fans when he decided that he could not take the team any farther with his hands so tightly tied. But when he is not being allowed to shape his vision, how can he be the right man for the job? I suppose he came to this conclusion.

But the timing of the decision is a strange one…” but do you know what Mr Gray? Something tells me that this was not actually planned – but hey, maybe that’s just me. On a serious note, I’m sure than MON had no desire to walk out on his 4 year progress; to abandon ship immediately after it had reached new depths; to neglect the nurturing of such talent as Gabby, Albrighton, Delfouneso and Delph; to sell off an unfinished business. Or maybe, after all, he did plan to take the team through preseason, prepare us for a do-or-die year and then turn his back 5 days before the big kick off…

Gray goes on to compare the Villa situation to Manchester United’s loss of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, he is irreplaceable and Fergie was not given the full £80m transfer fee to spend how he likes – however, Sir Alex was aware of this in advance (unlike O’Neill), he had the ability to still acquire the costly likes of Valencia, Obertan and Owen (unlike O’Neill), and he was in a position where he still had the vast, vast majority of players from the three times Premier League champions, not to mention their very recent Champions League exploits (similar to Villa?). It was also suggested that Harry Redknapp is being hard done by because he still hasn’t signed anyone ‘yet’. But a glance at his Portsmouth and Spurs debt, and the realisation that Tottenham will spend this summer, deems consideration of this argument very unnecessary.

Before I conclude my defence of Martin O’Neill (hopefully for the last time, because I want to give our incoming supremo every chance and my 100% support), I should also probably mention on a side note that had we acquired Stephen Ireland plus the reported £19m (which isn’t for spending) for James Milner, our NET expenditure would have had an even healthier face (for those who were so quick to look at the outgoing costs of the club). We should probably also be fair and consider the increased revenue of the club over the past 4 years, through gate receipts, European qualification, and of course, extended cup runs and TV rights. And why not throw in the fact that Villa distribute just the 7th highest wage bills in the league each year?

Hopefully the next time another famous voice attempts to take an uneducated swipe at O’Neill for “throwing his toys out of the pram”, they will firstly have a look at the difficulties which faced him in simply keeping us standing still in this crazy 21st century football business. Even more hopefully, Andy Gray will realise the errors of his judgements.

To quote my favourite, Brian Clough, “There’s a good lad…

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2010 A.D. The Year They Killed The Messiah

On the 15th of October 1973, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor tendered their resignation to the Derby County Board of Directors – who, in an unprecedented move, accepted their departure rather than bow to the demands of 2 of the most astute managers in world football. Today, Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa Football Club after seemingly reaching the end of his tether with the increasing chains of the powers-that-be. Today, the sleeping giant that is Aston Villa has now surely slipped into a deep, deep coma – and will never be woken.

As I was writing a new blog post on my season predictions, I explained,

“When I look at the personnel and depth of the 7 other teams in the Premier League top 8, and when I consider some of their spending power and growth, I see no reason why Aston Villa shouldn’t finish 8th this coming season. However, when I see images of Bodymoor Heath training, when I look at the excitement of some of our top-class players, when I hear O’Neill speak and when I consider his vision, I have every confidence that we will once again be in the shake-up come May…”

Unfortunately, as I was writing a new blog post on my season predictions, I read,

“It’s obviously a wrench to be leaving such a magnificent club…”

And at once, I had to stop writing. At once, the overly-optimistic Villain in me had been crushed, my rose tinted glasses shattered, and all at once, I could see only rubble before me on the plains of the 2010/11 season.

Romanticists are urging us to look at the positives, but some things in life just aren’t that simple, are they? Yes, I’ve criticised some of our players, I’ve overanalyzed some of our policies, and I beg for a sense of realism, but readers of this blog will know that, deep down, I am nothing more than a hopelessly hopeful Villa-addict. I will, when others won’t; I cheer when others frown; I believe when others doubt – but on the 9th of August 2010, this supporter fell from grace, cracked his head, and begrudgingly remembered that he is an Aston Villa fan; and with that, comes great misery.

Is it really that bad?

You bet. Because as I was riding high on the MON Express (I didn’t realise how high until now), I had forgotten the sickening feeling of having to turn off Match of the Day on a Saturday evening. I had blanked out all those cruel years of midtable apathy and I had elapsed the memory of when we were looking to Darius Vassell for goals, to Joey Gudjonsson for inspiration, to Alpay Ozalan for heart.

And now, regrettably, I see no way forward. I fear that Aston Villa will never be blessed with a manager of the calibre of Martin O’Neill again. The club has lost its entire pull-factor. James Milner is a goner; will we be so surprised to see Ashley Young follow him out the doorstep? Is a MONless AVFC appealing enough to attract the likes of Stephen Ireland (a player who we were on the brink of welcoming) or Robbie Keane? His achievements aside, the name alone of Martin O’Neill was working wonders for our club – and I can’t see any possible candidates having big enough metaphorical feet to fill his giant shoes.

In a way, the Ulster man has left us high and dry. 5 days before the new season begins, 22 days before the transfer window closes, we are managerless and still to make our first signing. But in another way, I don’t blame him. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if a board is going to hire a manager to oversee team affairs, they should put complete faith in that manager and his policies and allow him to shape his vision how he wants, with zero interference. If they feel that they cannot trust the man they have appointed and the directors feel that they know best, he shouldn’t be there in the first place – otherwise, let it be and give him a fair crack at the whip. And up until the past few months, I thought this mutual respect and communication was what we had at Aston Villa – and so did O’Neill. But how could MON take this club forward if we are constantly selling our best players? How could he take us anywhere if he isn’t being allowed to spend even the money that he raises himself? What would be the point in remaining with a project devoid of ambition, expecting failure?

The FA rejected MON’s application for the national job because he wanted to make sure that he had complete control of all team and academy matters (like it should be). (Similar unnecessary power-trips was why England missed out on having Brian Clough in charge all those years ago) Instead, the country was treated to the appointment of Steve McClaren who did his utmost to bring shame and disrepute to the 3 Lions crest. I say, “Back the manager; or sack the manager”… worryingly, our chairman chose the wrong option.

Irreplaceable?

Yes, I am a massive O’Neill supporter (although I can’t see any reason why everyone isn’t), but I do not want to become like that infamous blog which spouts out nothing but uninterested, uninspiring, pessimistic garbage each week about all-things-Villa. I’m an AVFC supporter first and foremost who simply recognised that MON was one of the best things in a long, long time that ever happened to this club – and I will back his successor (granted it’s not David O’Leary). I’m just having difficulty seeing how these clouds can be moved from Villa Park. I’m having difficulty considering life after O’Neill.

Martin gave us 4 spectacular years (I’ve discussed this in-depth in previous posts), and I, for one, am extremely thankful. Some say he was just there for the money (although he admirably walked out on his contract for footballing reasons); others say he had taken us as far as he could (even if he had, which he hadn’t, he had already taken us quite a distance). But O’Neill had us believing again – he had us hoping. And in the face of our 6 year despair, we couldn’t ask for any more.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, I don’t believe in fate. I maintain that we are placed in situations, faced with opportunities and we need to make the most of them, we have to try and make the right decision.

The term “Messiah” refers to the redeemer figure, the leader, the saviour – the one who will show His people the way. I can’t help but think that after dragging us from the dark ages, after prophesising greatness for this club, after restoring pride in our people, that Martin O’Neill was The Chosen One. And I dread to accept that we turned our back on his teachings, that we rejected his way, and that we, Aston Villa, banished The Messiah.

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Martin O’Neill: A Panic Buyer?

Personally, it has been a stressful week. Having been out of touch with Aston Villa news for the past 10 days, I took a quick check online this evening and was planning on heading straight to bed. Unfortunately, however, some of the AVFC posts and tweets that caught my eye within my short surf have ensured that tonight will be a sleepless venture unless I add my tuppence worth.

Firstly, I have seen a laughable suggestion,

whenever Villa played their best football it was with Emile Heskey”…

But I hold much too strong an opinion on this viewpoint to even begin to discuss tonight. So watch this space…

More prominently, I’m growing increasingly frustrated at the irritation building up at the lack of transfer activity at Villa Park so far this summer. Every time I click on a new page, there are complaints from fans aimed at O’Neill for not acquiring any new faces as of yet – or at least for not telling us his targets.

At the time of writing, it is the 1st of July! The first day of the summer transfer market. There are still 10 days of World Cup action remaining and 6 and a half weeks before the new season kicks off. Yet, how dare Martin O’Neill go on holiday last month. Imagine his audacity for not spouting his mouth off in Harry Redknapp style and blabbering to every media corner about who he’d like to sign and why – and in doing so, losing a touch of class and risking upsetting the rest of the squad.

To date, 11 Premier League clubs have made a move; 9 haven’t. Amongst these: Man City, Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea – our biggest competitors (I’m being generous saying we’re competing with Chelski, but we’re trying to catch the champions). Only 17 new faces have arrived to a different club so far this summer – 3 of these have dawned the doorstep of St. Andrews and I think that is what all the fuss is about. Villains have been alarmed by the premature transfer activity in the blue half of Birmingham, but we must not let our inferior city rivals scare us into making a rash move. We must not even contemplate Alex McLeish’s actions because when the dust settles; Jo Hart has been replaced by a less competent goalkeeper, Enric Valles is an unproven 20 year old signed for nothing, and Nikola Zigic will prove he is not worthy of a place amongst Villa’s 4 strikers – and once again, The Clowns will be living in our shadow with preseason hype rapidly disintegrating into mulch.

But why haven’t Villa signed anyone yet?

Apparently, there is no stopping O’Neill leaving transfer signings until it’s too late to make a good deal, and subsequently we have to settle for second best.

Like Birmingham City FC, this belief doesn’t deserve consideration and should be swept off the doorstep with the rest of the miniature refuse. Because, for one, MON rarely “settles”. Even the likes of Marlon Harewood and Emile Heskey have proven to be adequate aerial backup for our system as we journeyed from 16th to 6th place. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Habib Beye has been the only wasted signing. Nigel Reo Coker was signed for all of £8.5m and has fallen out of first team favour – however, he has still provided 3 seasons of service with many, including myself, agreeing that he has more to offer the squad.

Bargains

Indeed, all of O’Neill’s £6m+ signings have been excellent additions. With Downing and Milner sharing the record club transfer signing at £12m, and the reluctant surrender of MON to dish out £9.65m for the “world class” Ashley Young, Martin’s perceived hesitation in the transfer market is simply calculated estimations – ones which always pay off; and ones which, as a fan, make me feel extremely relaxed about the club’s finances. But beyond the security of Villa’s money matters, the players acquired for more than £6m is testament to the manager’s ability to find the right footballers, who more often than not, turn out to be bargains: Richard Dunne (signed for almost £20m cheaper than Lescott), Stiliyan Petrov (club captain), Carlos Cuellar, Stephen Warnock and the potential of rising star Fabian Delph have proven to be money well spent – and players who certainly weren’t second choice transfer targets.

With regards to these supposed last day panic buys; in each of the transfer markets since August 2006, O’Neill has made 7 signings in the last day or penultimate date of the windows. Okay, one of these was Mustapha Salifou – a strange signing, but hardly worth talking about at £50K. One was the erratic Shaun Maloney: a tried and trusted player of the O’Neill regime who showed real glimpses of flair but simply struggled to settle (and sold for a £1.5m profit). Another was the bemusing Wayne Routledge: who provides probably the only argument of a last minute panic buy – but even so, was a huge letdown because a lot of people expected him to come good and fit into our pacy British attack (sold on for profit). The other 4: James Milner (PFA Young Player of the Year), Richard Dunne (Club Player of the Year & PFA Team of the Year), James Collins and Stiliyan Petrov. Do I really need to put forth an argument as to why these players are so much more than “panic buys”? Would it not be worth waiting until the 31st August again if we knew we would be joined with similarly effective signings? Not that we have had to wait for the rest of O’Neill’s 21 signings anyway.

The myth that Martin is sleeping throughout the transfer window is horrendously flawed. With 10 of our regular starting team all recruitments of the Northern Ireland man, MON has had more work to do than any other manager within the summer and January periods – and he has performed shrewdly each year.

Because he hasn’t spoken of his wish-list, why should we all of a sudden doubt his ability to uncover another Ashley Young; to find a John Carew at the expense of a Milan Baros; to persuade a Brad Friedel, a Richard Dunne or a James Milner that Aston Villa is the club for them? About to embark on his 5th season in charge, why should we let our impatience and fickleness mask the trust we have in a manager who has demonstrated admirable progression both on the field and off it, in the transfer market? Why are we helping spread the vicious and unfounded misconceptions that O’Neill can’t keep up with today’s transfer demands; the sheer lies that he is a last minute panic buyer; when, in fact, the supporters are the only faction which is panicking?

Once again this summer, the England World Cup campaign was marred with embarrassing intrusions. Media reports and over-expecting fans allowed their premature, untimely fears interfere with the task at hand and before we knew it, players were speaking out, the rumour mill was powering and reciprocal faith between the manager and players descended into chaos – and England were headed home. A lesson is there to be learned.

It’s time to stop these fictional “stats” getting in the way of the club’s progress. It’s time to stop these frustrated outbursts undermining an omnipotent manager – when every other club are laughing at us for not realising what we have. It’s time to stop and just embrace another summer of fresh additions fuelling the fires of our dreams of the season ahead.

West Ham on the 14th August. Numerous signings or not, we will be prepared. No matter how long it takes, come the first day of September, we will have acquired enough ammunition to carry out an assault on a 50 game season – O’Neill wouldn’t be here, Lerner wouldn’t want 4th, if we weren’t going to push on.

On the brink of success, we are between a rock and a hard place. Ready to jump from our current platform, we need the firepower to reach the next step – otherwise we will fall from grace. We need to strike whilst the iron is still hot.

The signings will come.

In MON We Trust.

Transfers

(table compiled by Dan at www.astonvillacentral.com)

Player transfers since Martin O’Neill joined Aston Villa on 4th August 2006.

Date Player                        Xfr Fee Out
                          Xfr Fee In   To/From Club
22/08/06 Kevin Phillips   700,000   West Brom
25/08/06 Ulises De la Cruz   Free   Reading
30/08/06 Stilian Petrov 6,500,000     Celtic
12/09/06 Didier Agathe ?     Celtic
03/10/06 Chris Sutton Free     Birmingham
11/01/07 Didier Agathe   Released   N/A
11/01/07 Peter Wittingham   350,000   Cardiff
22/01/07 Milan Baros   Swap   Lyon
22/01/07 John Carew Swap     Lyon
23/01/07 Ashley Young 9,650,000     Watford
25/01/07 Paul Green   Free   Lincoln
31/01/07 Shaun Maloney 1,000,000     Celtic
17/04/07 Juan Pablo Angel   Free   New York Red Bulls
25/05/07 Jlloyd Samuel   Free   Bolton
30/05/07 Stephen Henderson   Free   Bristol City
31/05/07 Mark Delaney   Released   N/A
31/05/07 Chris Sutton   Released   N/A
08/06/07 Gavin McCann   1,000,000   Bolton
27/06/07 Aaron Hughes   1,000,000   Fulham
01/07/07 Robert Olejnik   Free   Falkirk
05/07/07 Nigel Reo-Coker 8,500,000     West Ham
05/07/07 Steven Davis   4,000,000   Fulham
17/07/07 Marlon Harewood 4,000,000     West Ham
19/07/07 Lee Hendrie   Free   Sheffield Utd
01/08/07 Eric Djemba-Djemba   Released   N/A
01/08/07 Sam Williams   Released   N/A
29/08/07 Zat Knight 3,500,000     Fulham
30/08/07 Liam Ridgewell   2,000,000   Birmingham
31/08/07 Moustapha Salifou 50,000     FC Wil
30/01/08 Gary Cahill   5,000,000   Bolton
30/01/08 Wayne Routledge 1,250,000     Tottenham
28/05/08 Luke Moore   3,000,000   West Brom
01/06/08 Patrik Berger   Released   N/A
01/06/08 Thomas Sorensen   Released   N/A
03/07/08 Curtis Davies 8,000,000     West Brom
04/07/08 Damian Bellon   Free   FC Vaduz
04/07/08 Eric Lund   Free   IFK Gothenborg
10/07/08 Steve Sidwell 5,000,000     Chelsea
26/07/08 Brad Friedel 2,000,000     Blackburn
01/08/08 Brad Guzan 600,000     Chivas USA
01/07/08 Olof Mellberg   Free   Juventus
07/08/08 Nicky Shorey 4,000,000     Reading
08/08/08 Luke Young 5,000,000     Middlesbrough
12/08/08 Carlos Cuellar 7,800,000     Rangers
22/08/08 Shaun Maloney   2,500,000   Celtic
30/08/08 James Milner 12,000,000     Newcastle
03/01/09 Wayne Routledge   600,000   QPR
23/01/09 Emile Heskey 3,500,000     Wigan
01/06/09 Martin Laursen   Retired   N/A
02/06/09 Gareth Barry   12,000,000   Man City
23/06/09 Stuart Taylor   Free   Man City
16/07/09 Stuart Downing 12,000,000     Middlesbrough
21/07/09 Sam Williams   Free   Yeovil Town
25/07/09 Zat Knight   4,000,000   Bolton
04/08/09 Fabian Delph 8,000,000     Leeds Utd
07/08/09 Habib Beye 2,500,000     Newcastle
12/08/09 Andy Marshall Free     N/A
27/08/09 Stephen Warnock 8,000,000     Blackburn
01/09/09 Richard Dunne 6,000,000     Man City
01/09/09 James Collins 5,000,000     West Ham
26/01/10 Craig Gardner   3,500,000   Birmingham
06/06/10 Andy Marshall   Released   N/A
TBC Stephen O’Halloran   Free   Coventry City
Totals   123,850,000 39,650,000   84,200,000

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MON His Way?

Paddy Power: Next Permanent Liverpool Manager

Martin O’Neill  2/1

 

Kenny Dalglish 10/3

 

Roy Hodgson 4/1

 

Sven Goran Eriksson 15/2

 

Mark Hughes 14/1

 

Harry Redknapp 14/1

 

Jurgen Klinnsmann 16/1

 

Gus Hiddink 20/1

 

Merseyside Messiah? Don't bet on it

‘Liverpool Football Club’. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? The most successful English football club of all time; 5 time European champions, a record number of First Division triumphs. Surely the chance to take up office at Anfield would be too good for even the most wanderlust of managers to turn down.

But it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty easy.

Because as proud a history the Merseyside club may have had, and as loyal the unshakeable support, they are still gifted with, is; the new football decade we are about to embark on doesn’t seem to care much for what tune the spirit of Shankly danced to in 1984, or for what lyrics of defiance ring out from today’s SOS at the Kop end in the cold year of 2010. Instead, the inevitable pastures new of Liverpool Football club seemingly suggests that only unforgiving, turbulent terrain lies ahead for the once “mighty” Reds.

And once again, Martin The Messiah is apparently poised to reign supreme and rescue the scousers from midtable obscurity. What is more alarming is that The Villa Blog (author: Damian Dugdale) has successfully got under my skin for a second time and suggested that O’Neill is not the man for us anyway; rather, my old pal Rafael Benitez should replace him. As I feel there are no words which could justify my frustration at this outlook, I will refer readers to my earlier post which compared some aspects of the gaffers’ performances: http://wp.me/pPEcu-2F.

However, this isn’t to say that I don’t think Benitez is a good manager. In fact, June’s messy remnants in the red half of Liverpool are testament to how bizarre and surreal the situation is; a sad situation that the scouse fans find themselves embroiled in. Because on the 3rd of June, it was announced that Rafa Benitez would step down from his managerial post at Anfield “by mutual consent”. A decision which I would have agreed with because as much as the Spaniard has in him to give, I don’t think he was the right man to take a limited, crisis-ridden Liverpool forward. Nevertheless, having been ‘sacked’ by the Premier League’s 7th best team, Benitez finds himself being chased by the European and Italian double champions Inter Milan to replace the world’s best manager, Jose Mourinho.

Does that make sense? If Fulham had sacked Hodgson after finishing 7th last year, would he be linked with the Barcelona job? Although, if Fergie guided United down 5 league places this coming season, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to think that the 2011 Champions League winners were interested in him, would it? However, it would be senseless of the Glazers to let him go off the back of one bad season (not that I should be comparing Fergie to Rafa, of course). But it is all immaterial because unfortunately, modern day Liverpool doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Hence, when I see Martin O’Neill’s name at the top of every list of managers to replace Benitez, I am not concerned. Yes, there are some buffoons who would be happy to let our “underperforming” boss go, stressing that he is not the man to take us forward; that we have finished in the same position for three successive years. But as I’ve said before, the fact that we are even standing still (which we aren’t anyway; we’re going forward), in the face of today’s outlandish market, is a rousing tribute to the unflappable work of O’Neill and his shrewd backroom staff. And after completing 4 hard years of undying graft just to pull us out of the trench we were buried in, why would MON want to abandon a ship that has just begun to gather momentum? Why would he even think about stepping aside, just for someone else to sweep in and take his credit? More importantly though; of all teams, why would he want to go to Liverpool F.C?

In spite of the fact that Villa sit higher in the league, the appeal of Liverpool Football Club has vanished for a number of off-field reasons. Obviously, the American owners don’t offer much for a prospectus manager to get excited about. With a mountain of debt, Gillett and Hicks have apparently used the club purely for personal reasons as means of softening the blow of their other business ventures. And with the club for sale for at least £600m, it could be a long, long time before the money is available to steer the club from 7th, back into title contention.

On top of this, the refusal of the boardroom to back their manager to the hilt is a complete no-no in football; and a prominent issue which is nothing but a deal-breaker for the obstinate Martin O’Neill. Time and time again, Benitez was undermined by the Liverpool board: players like Aaron Ramsey and Daniel Alves to name but a few starlets who were let slip through the net, simply out of lack of trust in their manager; and an unnecessary arrogance that the board knew what was best when it came to team matters. Of course, I have lambasted Benitez’ transfer performance in the past; but if I was a member of the Liverpool hierarchy, I wouldn’t employ someone to manage the team if I would refuse to put complete faith in him. The manager is hired to carry out his duties and run the club as he sees fit; he should be allowed to imprint his stamp and create his own vision and if the board don’t buy into his ideas, then he shouldn’t be in charge for 6 years. Before MON takes control at a club, he makes sure that he actually has control. There is no way he would agree to take charge of a team if he knew that he would be restricted in his input; if he knew that he didn’t have the freedom to manage how he wanted; if he knew he didn’t have the full backing of the board. England failed to acquire the Northern Ireland man’s services because it was clear to him that he would not be able to conduct his responsibilities and shape his visualization without interference from the powers-that-be. Either you place your complete trust in the manager, or you don’t hire him. Fortunately for us, MON demands this and gets it at Villa – he wouldn’t at Liverpool.

Moreover, the attitude of chairman Martin Broughton in the last 2 months has been of a very poor nature that would scare off even the most patient of managers. Arriving in the post on the 16th April and refusing to contact the manager for a full week is unacceptable. And after sacking the soon-to-be boss of the European Champions, a lot of Rafa’s peers might view the expectation attached with the current Liverpool vacancy a tad too much.

With the on-field catastrophes of the season passed, the necessity of having to still qualify for an uninspiring Europa League tournament, and with the off-field uncertainties of the boardroom and ownership; Liverpool has now not only become a new-manager-repellent, but it could well turn out to be a current-player-deterrent. For what reason would Javier Mascherano want to dismiss the attentions of Barcelona? For what reason would the managerless, debt-stricken club refuse the money? Does Steven Gerrard want to end his career knowing that Solomon Kalou has won more league titles than him? Were Torres and Reina just following their fellow Madrid-born citizen? The question marks at Melwood are all too big for a manager to take such a punt on such a sideways step.

Troubled

Besides, shouldn’t the fact that O’Neill has already signed another contract extension be some indication of his allegiances? Should it not only support the idea that he isn’t looking elsewhere, but reinforce his excitement at the prospect of a 5th season on his Villa mission? Because he signed on so soon, I have every belief that he honestly feels there is unfinished business with this project. And that he believes he is the man to deliver success to Aston Villa after a long time coming.  

But with bookies unanimously suggesting that Martin O’Neill is on his way, I think I might return to my betting days and take advantage of their naivety.

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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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Let’s All Boo the Boo-boys

Out of Order - even homegrown star, Agbonlahor, was targeted by Villa's fickle fans

Last night, I made a conscious decision not to write about Aston Villa. With the knuckles bruised from my living room wall, the remote control smashed and a few more strands of grey hair on my 21 year old head, I thought it was best to avoid any further kneejerk reactions and have a go at some sleep.

 This morning, my scars have certainly not healed. The bitter taste in my mouth is still consuming and the League Table positions are still static. However, as much time as I’ve had to reflect on another abysmal home result, I’ve had the same time to contemplate how far we’ve really come.

 When the final whistle blew on Wednesday night, I was probably as vocal as anyone about my harsh feelings towards O’Neill’s men,

“Bottlers” … “Wasters” … “Lazy ****” … to name but a few of the reactive insults that were fired from my mouth as surely as my beeping phone was fired under the bed for the night. Even worse, the descended red mist turned my short term attentions to the ‘incompetency’ of my beloved Martin O’Neill. Of course, I had my usual rant at Heskey and Cuellar and even criticized the manager’s overall policies. I was enraged at his “pointless” summer buys – because we still continue to play the same team over and over, with no rest for the first XI. I fumed at his decision to play two big men up front and I was even questioning his ability to get the team firing at such crucial stages in the season. Fortunately though, this mindless ignorance was contained within the walls of my home and to the ears of my family (who knew rightly that this was nothing more than just another schoolboy hissy fit).

 With the morning light, the irrational blinkers are removed and it’s always much easier to see the picture as a whole. As I awoke, I was feeling more disappointed than angry and it was at that moment I was almost sick remembering the jeers echoing around our ‘fortress’.

I thought of my own obscenities and shook my head as I recalled calling the most hardworking outfit “lazy”.

I questioned my questioning of the manager’s decision to play the two big lads up top together – would I have picked Delfouneso in that situation? Would I have played 4-5-1 at home to Wolves and Sunderland? No and No.

Why has O’Neill played the same players every week? But … has he? Although Villa have still the lowest tally, they have increased the number of players who have started to 20 this year – and has this paid dividends? Absolutely. Excuse MON if he thinks it’s important to find consistency in this crucial run in and stick with the same back 5 that has leaked the fewest league goals this year. Excuse him if he thinks the orchard of youth at Villa, in Delph, Albrighton and Delfouneso, is yet to bear fruit. And I think we’ll forgive our manager for the untimely injury of Gabriel Agbonlahor, our top scorer, our ‘out man’, and the only player of his kind in the squad. Finally, O’Neill should maybe be pardoned for his expert eye deciding that the rest of our squad players simply are not good enough – and more importantly, by not using these, we have embraced two extended cup runs and have gave ourselves a fighting chance at fourth.

Sometimes, I’m ashamed to call myself a Villa fan and associate with the likes of the fickle boos at Villa Park.

 So I ask the question: Boo-boys, what do you want?

Yes, we’re expected to turn over the likes of Wolves and Sunderland at home; and yes, we’re expected to fight for 4th – but this expectation has derived purely through the achievements of Martin O’Neill. We’ve never expected like this before in the past, we’ve never hoped. We might have put up with O’Leary had he not let us succumb to 31 defeats in 2 seasons. We might not have expected anything of O’Neill had he carried on his predecessors’ form of 42 goals a season … 42 league points before he took over. In their final years, Taylor and O’Leary ensured we avoided relegation – keeping us afloat in 16th spot, didn’t our former managers make our club proud?

Messiah

 Conversely, O’Neill has served to immediately stamp out our heavy loss tallies – making us difficult to beat, losing 10 games each year (the same amount of defeats suffered by the Villa team of 1993 – who consequently finished league runners up). Moreover, in just his second season, MON’s side banged in an impressive 71 league goals – the highest ever scored by a Villa Premier League side. Indeed, the closest Aston Villa ‘goals for’ tally in the Premier League came in its first season (92/93) with the 2nd placed side, who managed only to notch up 57 goals. And lest we forget, Martin O’Neill’s signing Ashley Young is the only player to ever receive 3 player of the month awards in the one season (2008-09). And maybe we’ve turned a blind eye to his contribution to the careers of Young, Gabby, Gareth Barry, Curtis Davies and James Milner – all of whom have propelled to the international stage under the guidance of the Northern Ireland man. And rather than taking us backwards along the same route of every past Villa manager (premier league), we have developed into a stronger and stronger outfit each season. Racking up a higher points tally each year (62 last year – the last time Villa won 4th place, they got 63) in the face of the 21st century superpowers of the Premier League, O’Neill has ignored the chains of modern day football and continues to push his way to the peak of the league. And of course after spending less than all of his rivals, MON has still secured Villa’s rightful place in the top 7 of today’s league brackets – and what is more, has made them even more difficult to beat than previous years with only 5 losses recorded in this season’s league campaign. Such form would prove pivotal in cup runs (as proven this year), and such form is why Aston Villa’s 16 year wait for a trophy wont prolong much farther.

 How dare anyone, therefore, mutter even a restless sigh at Villa Park. Yes, I’ve cried and complained within the confines of my bedroom – but I’d like to think if I was lucky enough this year to sit in the Holte End, I’d have the appreciative manners to understand just how far we’ve come under Martin O’Neill. I know I would support our tightly knit unit, playing for our cause, instead of making them anxious of coming home. And in any moment of frustration, I’m sure that I have enough common sense to realise the steps taken in the last 3 and a half years to restore pride in a once battered club. The fact that boos ring out at an opportunity wasted for 2 extra points is testament to the rejuvinated pride amongst our faithful – because we know we can do better; we finally believe we can do better. But let’s not forget where we came from. Let’s not allow unreasonable short term anger to have a lasting effect on our team. Let’s not throw our football knowledge, our self-respect and our club down the drain just because O’Neill has allowed us to expect again. Unless you actually think it’s time we brought back Graham Taylor or David O’Leary, place your trust in MON and his vision for the football dynasty he is creating. I hear Phil Brown and Tony Mowbray are available …

C’mon! Let’s wake up and praise the Lord that we have Martin O’Neill in our midst.

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