Martin O’Neill is arguably – in tandem with owner Randy Lerner – the best thing to happen to Aston Villa since 1982, the year that they won on Europe’s biggest stage. Arriving in 2006, O’Neill has transformed the club from inconsistent strugglers to a top-six Premier League side. His nous – something that appears to derive from his stint at the University of Belfast where he studied Law – has helped to build a team that can match its club’s reputation.
Aston Villa are one of the biggest and oldest clubs in England – they have earned respect around Europe for their success in the last hundred years but in the decade between O’Neill’s appointment and their last trophy, the 1996 League Cup, the club stagnated and were in danger of slipping in to the abyss that is Premier League mediocrity. O’Neill came in and revitalised a club that were deemed to be a ‘sleeping giant’, capable of greatness but without the necessary funds and ability to truly reach the levels of their predecessors. However, in the four years that O’Neill has been at the club, with the help of Lerner, Aston Villa have began challenging for honours, playing in Europe, producing England internationals and being the home to many a top international player.
With those players, including James Milner, John Carew and club captain Stiliyan Petrov at his disposal, O’Neill has led Aston Villa to two consecutive sixth place finishes in the league, a League Cup final, an appearance in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) and a semi-final in this year’s FA Cup. However, even though Aston Villa fans are unquestionable in their respect for ‘M’ON’, they are beginning to wonder whether his insistence on picking the same team consistently is hindering the club’s development. Ashley Young, James Milner, Gabby Agbonlahor et al have all played over 35 games this season and wear and tear is beginning to become a problem for Villa.
Two disappointing draws with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sunderland – draws that O’Neill tried to mask as games Villa should not have been expecting to win – mean the Villains are now four points behind Tottenham Hotspur in fourth place. Of course, this season has seen a multitude of unexpected results so two draws were not as bad as some other results but the reason behind these outcomes is what has many Villa fans scratching their heads. In the summer, Martin O’Neill made a concerted effort to make Villa’s squad larger after it was patently obvious that such a small squad could not compete on so many fronts, both domestically and in European competition.
So, in order to combat this problem, he enlisted the help of Lerner and acquired some very able players to give the squad more depth, such as Fabian Delph and Habib Beye. Steve Sidwell, Luke Young, Nathan Delfouneso, Beye and Delph are all consistently left on the bench whilst their team mates, such as Milner, Cuellar and Heskey struggle with injuries but play through on their manager’s determination to have a consistent starting eleven. If Villa are to progress to the next level – assumedly the Champions League – O’Neill will either need to rotate more often, trust the players on the first-team periphery or, most drastically, ask Lerner to invest substantial amounts of money and attempt to lure players with Champions League experience.
A possible conclusion for O’Neill’s reluctance is found through the perception fans and the footballing world has of him. O’Neill is purported to be a gentleman, a thoroughly nice ‘chap’ and a reasonable man, albeit prone to make the odd superfluous, superlative hyperbole (i.e. Ashley Young being compared to Lionel Messi). Managers are meant to be completely ruthless and if a player is not performing, he should expect to be replaced. However, it appears that O’Neill is either completely myopic or afraid of disappointing some of his first team players – for example, the case of Carlos Cuellar and Luke Young. Cuellar is a fantastic defender and after having £8m spent on him, has vindicated O’Neill’s decision to invest so much by performing very well in the centre of defence. Unfortunately, he has found himself displaced by the imperious James Collins and Richard Dunne and as a result, he has been repositioned at right-back – the position of fan favourite Luke Young.
Young has been one of O’Neill’s most reliable performers but ever since early season injury and a family bereavement, has found himself warming the bench whilst Cuellar puts in inadequate and overly defensive efforts. Cuellar is not to blame – he is not a right back and does not have an attacking mind. O’Neill, the manager, should be able to decipher which player is best suited to that position and although the majority of fans believe it is Young, O’Neill insists upon Cuellar. As mentioned, without O’Neill, Villa fans would not be able to complain about having only reached a final and a semi-final and found themselves in a position to fight to reach the Champions League but now, O’Neill’s decisions are becoming questionable and action is quickly needed. Although they should have never been expecting to get fourth place in August, Villa may meet the same disappointing league fate of last season.