Friday, December 1, 2023

Aston Villa and Martin O’Neill – A marriage made in heaven

Aston Villa might just be a club who are on the verge of disproving three of the current beliefs within Premiership football.

1. No team can break into the top four in the foreseeable future.
2. You need to have a top foreign manager if you are going to succeed.
3. There is no talent within the English game and you need overseas stars to compete.

Following a wonderful start to the season, Villa suffered a dip in form, but a run of three victories in which they have scored an astonishing fifteen goals has seen them get right back into the battle for fifth place. Victory at Everton next week would leave them so close to a UEFA Cup spot.

With the football Villa have played at times this year, they have looked more than capable of challenging the supremacy shown by the big four over the last few years. With home gates consistently around the 40,000 mark, unsurprisingly American money behind them, although not with all the baggage associated with certain other American owners, and a footballing tradition including a European Cup win, Villa are very definitely a club on the up.

The manager, Martin O’Neill, has proved time and time again that he has what it takes to compete with the best. He has a knack of getting the best out of the players he has, finding and developing young talent and winning trophies.

What a crying shame it was for England that the FA couldn’t see past the end of their noses when Sven Goran Eriksson left the England job and the FA interviewed and dismissed O’Neill at the first stage of the process. You have to wonder about the sanity of the FA if they truly believed that Steve McClaren was a better option.

From his early days at Wycombe Wanderers, O’Neill has been a success. He managed the then non-league side to two FA Trophy wins and promotion to the league . He also took them up again before moving onto unfashionable Leicester City. At that club he achieved the remarkable by getting them promoted to the Premier League, keeping them there and twice winning the League Cup. You only have to look at what has happened to Leicester since he left to understand the significance of his achievements with them.

On leaving Leicester, O’Neill went up to Scotland to take on the job as manager of Celtic. The club had spent a period being dominated by their old firm rivals, but O’Neill put a stop to that. In his short spell at the club he won three league titles, three Scottish Cups and a League Cup, as well as taking them to a UEFA Cup Final where they narrowly lost to Jose Mourinho’s Porto who went on to win the Champions League in the following season.

At Villa, O’Neill has turned the club from relegation candidates to European challengers in just two seasons. He seems to have the ‘Midas touch’.

The players who O’Neill has molded into such a formidable outfit include a smattering of overseas stars. Martin Laursen and Wilfred Bouma at the back and John Carew up front have all had tremendous seasons and played a significant part in their success.

The other names that have to be mentioned are Scott Carson, Zat Knight, Curtis Davies, Gareth Barry, Nigel Reo-Coker, Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor. They’re all English. Nobody should claim that there is no talent in England. Add the likes of Ferdinand, Gerrard, Cole and Rooney to those at Villa and you don’t have a bad side!

So apart from the overseas investment angle, Aston Villa are bucking the trend. A manager who has every right to sit at the top table with the likes of Wenger and Ferguson and a young, attacking, entertaining side including several English players, who might just have the temerity to try to force their way in to the exclusive top four club.

There are rumours that skipper Gareth Barry is being closely watched by Liverpool and Chelsea. There is a togetherness at Villa Park that could see Barry turn down those wonderful opportunities and commit his future to the Villa. The prospect of Barry leaving has produced a remarkable response from other players.

Keeper Scot Carson said, “It is massive that Gareth stays, he is the captain here and a vital part of the manager’s plans. I would say he is the centre point of the team and the most consistent player. If he went, it would be a massive blow. He is the heartbeat of the team.”

Defender Zat Knight said, “It shows where Villa want go when the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea come in for Gareth and yet he still wants to see what is going to happen here. We are trying to build something special here over the next couple of years and hopefully he can be part of it. We need Gareth to stay because he has got that bit of class. We are just pleased to have him at the moment and hopefully we can keep him.”

Striker John Carew echoed the thoughts of the others, “I just hope he stays and he is one of our most important players. What will happen, or not happen, is difficult to say. I think he will stay. He is our captain, he is the symbol of the club. I think he will stay, but let’s wait and see.”

It is obvious that there is a real togetherness at Villa Park under O’Neill and the players can see that they might be on the verge of doing something very special. There seems to be a magnificent team spirit, total confidence in the manager and harmony behind the scenes. Why would Gareth Barry, the captain and linchpin of it all want to swap that for what he would face with any of the big four?

Maybe he would get to play to play Champions League football, but if he just waits another season, don’t bet against him getting the chance to do that with Villa.


Graham Fisher



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