As Aston Villa gear up for their semi-final clash with Chelsea in the FA Cup, Martin O’Neill will be aware that his career at Aston Villa is under media scrutiny. For all of his concerted efforts with the players to convince fans that he is here to stay, there is still doubt surrounding his tenure at Villa Park.
O’Neill has been an undoubted success in the Midlands. He has transformed Aston Villa from a sleeping giant to a side that looks capable of making themselves a regular fixture on the European stage. Prior to this season, two sixth place finishes had only been backed up by a brief stint in the UEFA Cup. Now that Villa fans had had their appetites whetted, a cup run was necessary this season to show progression. O’Neill has delivered exactly that but still, ambiguity shrouds Villa’s end of season stretch. With Villa struggling for form in recent weeks, and being humiliated by Chelsea in the league, the signs are not good for Martin O’Neill’s men. Indeed, the fans appear to have quiet, very quiet, confidence in their team’s chances of winning. A trip to Wembley, a walk up Wembley Walk, should be a monumental occasion for all fans but somewhat surprisingly, Villa have yet to sell out their seat allocation. Maybe it is a mixture of disappointment at the way the side are playing, the proximity between their last trip to Wembley and the extortionate ticket prices but for the players, it will not instil masses of confidence knowing that supporters are not coming in their droves. (It should be noted that the number of tickets available is not in its thousands but it was presumed to be a scramble for tickets prior to this revelation)
Martin O’Neill appears to be determined to play down the importance of this fixture. In a recent press conference, O’Neill told the gathered press: “We are just going down the day before. We will just work on a couple of wee things in the morning and we will just go down as an overnight as if we were going to play in London. It is a semi-final, it is still important.” O’Neill is an educated man and often lauded for his press conference manner but his repetition of ‘just’ may worry fans. Is O’Neill, a man that is known to dislike the decision to play semi-finals at Wembley, under estimating the importance of this fixture to Villa? Does he think that they can not win, or that their efforts would be better tuned toward a late push for fourth place? Should Villa lose on Saturday, O’Neill will, deservedly or not, find himself on the end of criticism from Villa fans, proclaiming that the Irishman has taken the club as far as he can. Apparently, two sixth place finishes, two trips to Wembley, an appearance in the UEFA Cup and a new found hope is not enough.
How football has changed. Could Martin O’Neill really be forced out of a club that has improved tenfold since his arrival?