On August 4, 2006, ex-Leicester and Celtic manager Martin O’Neill walked into a press conference with the media to confirm his appointment as Aston Villa manager and said this: “I am well aware of the history of this football club. Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup, but that is the dream.” Four years and five days down the line, how well did O’Neill do and how far did he take the club?
In his first season at the helm, O’Neill improved the club’s points tally from 42 in the 2005/06 season to 50 in the 2006/07 season and finished five places higher up the table in 11th position. The season after (2007/08), they narrowly missed out on the UEFA Cup and qualified for the Intertoto Cup with a sixth placed finish. They scored 71 goals, gained 60 points and were the third highest goal scorers in the Premier League for that year.
In the 2008/09 season, 25 games into the season, Villa were third in the table and on course for the Champions League. O’Neill then decided to prioritise Champions League qualification over anything else and fielded an unknown side against CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Cup. Villa lost that game and then failed to win their next 10 Premier League games, falling off the pace and finishing 6th for the second season running.
Last season, Villa failed to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League, but faired well domestically, picking up wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. They finished 6th again and got to the Carling Cup final where O’Neill lost against Manchester United.
His stats as Villa manager are 80 wins, 50 losses and 60 draws in a 190-game managerial tenure at Villa Park. His win percentage was 42.11% in a time that failed to deliver any major trophies to the Midlands side.
Bruce Scott, head of the Yorkshire Lions Supporters Club, believes that O’Neill did a fantastic job in charge of the club: “O’Neill was the best thing the club has had for 30 years. It’s a big difference between winning all the time in the SPL and winning in England and he handled it well. I think a combination of being given a lack of funds and the imminent departures of [Ashley] Young and [James] Milner just pushed him over the edge. In the end, as is with most things these days, it all came down to money.”
Comparing his achievements to his press conference greeting, O’Neill failed to meet his own ambitious expectations. However, if you look at the way he progressed Aston Villa from an 11th place finish the year before he arrived to regular Europa League place finishers, he has done a good job at Villa. The astute purchases of young English talent, including Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner, and the influx of young talent he produced through the side should stand Aston Villa in good stead for the season. Even if the proposed moves away from Villa Park for Milner and Young go through, O’Neill has still left a solid defensive unit and a host of attacking excitement behind. O’Neill did a good job at Villa and the next manager will have to live up to some high expectations that the Villa fans hold.