It seems strange to remember that both Martin O’Neill and Alex McLeish were plying their trade across the border past Hadrian’s Wall just a few short years ago. Their rivalry perpetuated a super-two showdown between Celtic and Rangers, but today both face a different kind of challenge.
For O’Neill, his job is not too dissimilar to his time at the white and green playground. Expectation and pressure have been poured on Villa’s managerial hot-seat as both money and support were thrown at the club in the summer of 2007, not unlike O’Neill’s time at Celtic. Moreover, a host of stars have joined him in his bid to achieve Aston Villa’s best season to date.
Of course O’Neill is used to working with talented players. The likes of Henrik Larsson, Alan Thompson and John Hartson were coached by the enigmatic manager in his bid to achieve glory in Glasgow. However, the current crop that O’Neill possesses out-trumps any that have gone before. The ilk of Gabbi Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, James Milner and Emile Heskey comprise a list of pedigree that serves to overwhelm teams with a strong strength in depth and quality in all areas of the pitch. Moreover, the most pleasing thing about Villa’s team is the amount of successful English players contained within it. As shown above, the Villans have a monopoly of English players, and could possibly make claim to as many as six spots on Fabio Capello’s plane come the summer in South Africa, something that the big four have gotten away with doing exclusively since Chelsea made a big four in the first place to contend for the Premier League. The only question that needs answering from these stars and their esteemed manager is whether the club will continue to progress.
Last year the Villans achieved a high flying sixth and a spot of European football that pleased fans and players alike. However it looks promising that this season better things are to come. Villa already sit in fourth place after victories over Manchester United and Sunderland. Not only were both games played in a style that showed Villa’s desire and hunger to perform better than the club’s history-as shown by the breaking of the Old Trafford duck- but also two clean sheets were kept, proving that Aston Villa can do more than just attack well, and can defend consistently well too.
Moreover, what sets them apart from the rest of the big four challengers is their desire to allow for gradual change, and trust in the manager. Both Manchester City and Tottenham have made overhauls of players in the last two/three years, and managers such as Mark Hughes are potentially under fire despite claiming eighth spot in December for City, whereas Villa have kept faith with O’Neill and trusted his judgement and as a result the team has gradually built itself up, with good signings at key points in the last two seasons.
For Alex McLeish however a different challenge awaits. After promotion with Birmingham last year, survival in what has been classed as the toughest league in the world was ostensibly what he was aiming for. However, after five consecutive wins they sit seventh in the Premier League on the same points as Liverpool after a remarkable run of form that has shown Birmingham are certainly no pushovers.
What has been surprising watching them is their organisation and hard work ethic. The back four of Liam Ridgewell, Scott Dann, Roger Johnson and Stephen Carr have all been tremendous so far, and what they lack in quality they make up for in perseverance. Lee Bowyer has also got to be circled from Birmingham’s midfield. The tendency is for the Blues to utilise Bowyer as their attacking midfielder who sometimes plays just behind the front man, and his goals have been vital in terms of gaining points. He looks a revitalised player after his time on the sidelines at West Ham and his winner against them last Saturday shows that this is a man who has found form under McLeish, no doubt to the delight of his manager. Cameron Jerome has started to join the party too. His goals in the Championship last season were a key factor in their promotion and his two goals against Blackburn in midweek hopefully shows his adaptation to the new league.
Alex McLeish has done a wonderful job so far come Christmas, and both he and Martin O’Neill should be all smiles and handshakes for a while yet. It will be interesting to see whether both teams can keep up their form to the end of the season; however their current placements in the League are no doubt deserved.