Aston Villa’s Premier League preparations were thrown into turmoil today by the resignation of manager Martin O’Neill, just five days before the new season gets under way. With James Milner about to follow O’Neill out of the exit door and a squad containing a number of players loyal to the now-former boss, the next few weeks will be a defining period in Villa’s short and long-term future.
O’Neill, who joined Villa in 2006 after a successful spell with Glasgow Celtic, was strongly linked with replacing Rafael Benitez at Anfield after the Spaniard’s departure earlier this summer, while rumours of a rift between O’Neill and chairman Randy Lerner first sprang up in March. Then, O’Neill remained at his post but as negotiations over Milner’s transfer to Manchester City continue, and talk of a Tottenham Hotspur bid for Ashley Young grows, the Lerner-imposed sell-before-you-buy strategy may be what has driven O’Neill to walking away from the Midlands club. The new manager will face the same constraints and little time left before the transfer window slams shut.
Alan Curbishley is the early favourite, and the out of work former Charlton Athletic boss is as short as 3/1 with some bookmakers, but the Londoner’s appointment would be unlikely to quell the inevitable fan unrest resulting from O’Neill’s resignation. Nor would Curbishley, out of management since leaving West Ham in September 2008, be the most logical choice – he may have experience at working with a tight budget from Charlton, if that is the reason for the vacancy, but the expectations at the Valley then and Villa Park now are worlds apart. Villa’s squad, with or without Milner and as small as it may be, is good enough for a Europa League qualification effort. That may not have been enough for O’Neill, but for an ambitious manager such as Dave Jones of Cardiff City, former Villa defender Simon Grayson, now at Leeds United, or current United States Coach Bob Bradley, the chance to steady Villa’s ship and move it forward may be too appealing to pass up.
The squad the new boss will find contains some very O’Neill-like idiosyncrasies. Packed full of athletic half wingers/half forwards like Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor, teamed with physical centre-forwards John Carew and Emile Heskey and a hard-working, uncultured midfield of Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker, with a dash of style from Stiliyan Petrov, it is a squad in the mould of the departed O’Neill. Energetic, uncompromising and more concerned with winning games than friends, the new manager may have to wait to put his own stamp on proceedings, possibly until next summer when a full transfer window will be at his disposal. Sacrificing Milner – and perhaps Young – in order to generate the kind of money needed to breathe new life into the Villa team may not be popular with the Holte End masses, but could be a necessary evil whoever steps into the breach has to contend with.