Rumours that Martin O’Neill has quit as manager of Aston Villa have been branded ‘pure nonsense’ by sources at Villa Park, but there does seem to be an awful lot of smoke for there not to be a fire.
The whispers doing the rounds have it that O’Neill has decided to leave his post with the Midlanders following a row with American owner Randy Lerner. Initial reports suggest O’Neill had aired grievances with Lerner over transfer funding, or lack of it, for next season, and had decided to end his four-year tenure at the club. This speculation has been quickly rebuffed by unnamed Villa sources, although tellingly no official statement is yet to appear from either party. Whatever the outcome, any goings on have come at a bittersweet period for the club. A week on Saturday, Villa will contest an FA Cup semi-final on the same Wembley turf where they narrowly lost last month’s League Cup final to Manchester United. However, it is Villa’s failure to advance on last season’s sixth place finish which is causing O’Neill’s procrastinations. Since arriving at the club from Celtic in 2006, O’Neill has abided by Randy Lerner’s slow and steady method of progression, conducted with financial prudence. The agreed end goal was Champions League qualification, but after a sequence of three win’s in ten league games, the last of which the 7-1 drubbing by Chelsea, those aims will not be reached once again.
Saturday’s demolition at Stamford Bridge seems to have marked a watershed for the club, the realisation being that they are neither good enough, nor endowed with the number and quality of personnel to achieve what they set out. Whether O’Neill has decided that is a testament to his abilities should become clearer in the next few days, or more likely, at the end of the season. Similarly to last season, Villa have once again faltered with the turn of the year, hamstrung by a slim line squad which lacks the strength and depth of their immediate competitors. Their recent lack of results has come at a time when outsiders analyse the Villa team as fatigued, with too many players having the burden of having played too many matches. Whilst Manchester City and Tottenham have been able to spend lavishly and construct large player pools, Villa have been bound by the economic constraints in achieving a top-four finish, and the indications are that O’Neill will not be afforded a bumper bounty pre-season to help advance his side’s charge.
All of which has left O’Neill to ponder how to build on successive finishes of sixth in the last two campaigns. Without significant investment it is difficult to see how Villa can progress from their current position as pretenders to the top four. The likelihood is that the sides around them will strengthen as necessary whilst the Ulsterman has already furtively hinted that he is operating a ‘sell to buy’ policy. Since taking charge, O’Neill has overseen a complete overhaul of the Villa set-up he inherited. Indeed, only the terminally injured Wilfred Bouma and academy graduate’s including Gabriel Agbonlahor are not O’Neill recruits, although most of his signings have been conducted with frugal efficiency, the highest of which was Stewart Downing’s arrival from Middlesbrough for £12m. If breaking into the top-four is tough enough, it’s even harder on a budget. So, what next for O’Neill? If he stays on in charge of Aston Villa, expect more of the same. Even though today’s reports of a disagreement between manager and owner are unsubstantiated, the circumstances are unlikely to change.
Lerner’s administration of the club has never been about a cash-splash quick-fix, and the immediate situation does not necessarily facilitate one. If Lerner craves a Champions League appearance he will have to back up his demands with cash, if he does not, and he is happy to see his club operate on a secure footing with tentative progression, he has the right man in charge, unfortunately, that right man may now think it is the right time to depart. Given the size and status of the club he is at, and considering the strides he has made, O’Neill’s frustrations are understandable. For four season’s O’Neill has towed the party line and abided by Lerner’s fiscal spending. Over that period he has raised a team from mid-table mediocrity to one on the periphery of the league’s top sides. Should he be afforded the luxury of an assault with a group of players capable of taking them to the next level? If he is not, his departure could have further reaching implications than finding a new manager.
Under O’Neill’s stewardship a number of English players have flourished and cemented places in Fabio Capello’s England squad, the danger for them, as with O’Neill, is that patience is a virtue, albeit one in short supply during a footballers career. A perceived lack of initiative from the club hierarchy rarely bodes well with players whose own aspirations stretch beyond that of their employer. The loss of a manager all too often leads to the dissembling of what he has built. For O’Neill himself, what would lie in store should he go? For a manager previously talked about as a candidate for the Manchester United and England jobs, the options don’t exactly jump off the page and there are no conceivable steps forward from here. With details still unclear about the nature of his stance with Lerner, it remains to be seen if this is a lover’s tiff, or grounds for divorce.