Rumours abounded on Tuesday over the future of Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill, with speculation growing the 58-year-old had left his post at Villa Park.
The Midlands club quickly moved to deny the story, but a supposed rift between O’Neill and Villa owner Randy Lerner was said to be at the heart of O’Neill’s discontent. Disagreements over transfer funds were said to be the crux of the matter. O’Neill wanted licence to strengthen his squad in the summer whereas Lerner is thought to favour a sell-to-buy philosophy with cuts in spending across the club also forthcoming. The weekend’s 7-1 hammering against Chelsea will not have helped relations between the two key figures at Villa and whether O’Neill remains in charge still remains to be seen. Villa have been pushing for a Champions League place this season but in recent weeks have fallen off the pace, handing the initiative to Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool. Villa have won just one of their last five Premier League games – drawing three – and currently sit seventh, seven points off Spurs in fourth. The FA Cup remains a legitimate target for Villa, but it would mean beating Chelsea just weeks after the Stamford Bridge massacre.
That Villa have contended in the Champions League race for so long is a testament to O’Neill’s managerial ability. The former Celtic boss is working with,if not the weakest, then the smallest squad of the four Champions League hopefuls. Outside of Villa’s first choice XI, the ranks are thin in both quality and quantity and no new faces arrived in the January transfer window – instead, the squad was lessened further when Craig Gardener departed to join Villa’s eternal rivals Birmingham City. Whereas each of Villa’s fourth place competitors bolstered their roster at the turn of the year, O’Neill had to continue working with what he already had and their form has subsequently suffered in the run-in. Clinching Europa League football now appears to be the summit of Villa’s aim, with resurgent Everton breathing down their neck. Much football will be played between now and May but as it stands, the Champions League race looks increasingly like it is down to three horses.
All manner of fanciful rumours sprung up in the aftermath of the O’Neill-to-quit reports, including talk of a return to Celtic. While O’Neill may hold a rare bond with the Bhoys, if his ambition cannot be satiated at Villa Park, what chance of a return to Glasgow? A studious and determined manager, O’Neill would be a leading contender to take over any top job that opened up in England – including replacing Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, as has been considered for a number of years. No comment has as yet come from O’Neill himself but if he does depart Villa – either this week or in the summer. Another of the Premier League’s famous names who also look unlikely to achieve Champions League football this year is Liverpool. The future of Rafa Benitez is only slightly less murky than O’Neill’s and the Spaniard has been linked with Italian giants Juventus. Should Benitez leave Merseyside for Italy or elsewhere, O’Neill will be near the top of the Red’s wish list regardless of his employment situation.
It appears O’Neill will remain at Villa Park for the foreseeable future. The club would be loath to deny his departure one day only for the fiery ex-Leicester City boss to walk away days later. Any rift between the manager and Lerner must be solved soon however, lest Villa’s impressive progress under O’Neill reset under the guidance of a new manager. It was just days ago on this website a writer acclaimed O’Neill and Lerner as “The best thing to happen to Aston Villa since 1982.” That was of course the year the Villains won the European Cup and while they remain some distance from matching that achievement today, simply qualifying for the competition would be a triumph. O’Neill’s steely resolve suggests he will lead a team out to the strains of the Champions League anthem one day and Villa’s loyal fans will of course hope it is them, but if cuts have to be made (and over 75% of the club’s turnover being spent on wages suggests they do) Villa’s Champions League dreams may go unfulfilled for a little while longer.