Articulate, funny and an enthusiastic celebrator of his team’s goals, Martin O’Neill is one of the most popular men in football. Having done a superb job at Leicester City, and a very good one at Celtic (despite quite heavy spending) he was linked with the Manchester United job in 2002 (before Ferguson stayed on) and was interviewed for the England Managership in 2006. Many think he would be the perfect candidate for the latter, while others think he and David Moyes would be good ‘home-grown’ choices if and when the former becomes available. He inherited David O’Leary’s position at Aston Villa in 2006, as he was hired by Randy Lerner – who had recently succeeded ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis as owner of Aston Villa – and according to many pundits did a fantastic job, leading Villa to three consecutive 6th place finishes after a modest 11th place in his first season.
This conclusion has been drawn understandably, but it relies upon a red herring of a statistic. O’Neill’s many acolytes often state that he single-handedly turned a club that finished 16th in 2005-06 consistently into a top 6 club. This understates the level of investment given to O’Neill compared to his predecessor. Whereas O’Leary was able to spend roughly £5m net per season at Villa, O’Neill spent £83m in his four seasons – four times more per season than the Irishman.
During his first season, having spent £16m net, the improvement from 16th to 11th, whilst not being bad, is nothing exceptional with the extra resources available. He insitgated a much-needed overhaul of O’Leary’s squad, buying success stories John Carew and Ashley Young at considerable expense while selling white elephants such as Milan Baros.
The next season, O’Neill spent just £1m net. The improvement from 11th to 6th perhaps came residually from the previous January’s signings (including Carew and Young) being allowed to ‘bed in’ at the club in the previous ‘transition’ season. The signings made in the summer ranged from the moderate (£3.5m for Zat Knight) to the ridiculous (£5m for Marlon Harewood), with only Nigel Reo-Coker and Knight (£11m combined) contributing in any way to the team’s improvement. O’Neill did extremely well to lead this squad to sixth place, but it was in his sales where his success is tempered. Players such as Gary Cahill, Liam Ridgewell, Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes, sold for modest prices by O’Neill, could have acted as the back-up expensively assembled later on in their positions.
The next season, 2008-09, O’Neill splurged £45m net, looking to break into the Champions League. Brad Friedel, James Milner and Carlos Cuellar contributed greatly to this quest, whereas Steve Sidwell, Luke Young and Curtis Davies figured intermittently. Nicky Shorey’s purchase for £5m was comparable in wastage only to that of Marlon Harewood. For this expenditure, Villa attained the same 6th place position after threatening Arsenal’s position in the top four for much of the season. From a very strong position with 15 games to go, Villa collapsed. They struggled for goals as Young, Milner and Agbonlahor tired late in the season, scoring only 16 in 14 games after March 1st.
One major flaw with O’Neill’s transfer policy at this time was his exaggerated belief in the 2007-08 players. A strong sixth placed finish was an overachievement with the players at his disposal – the ‘next level’ of Champions League football required players of greater quality. 1 win in 9 home games against the rest of the top 10 that season suggests that the side lacked the technical quality and imagination to win the tough games needed to finish fourth. Away this was less of a problem, as they could counterattack the more attacking home sides, but at home the level of creativity needed to break solid ‘playing for a point’ teams down was not there.
Moreover, spending £16m on Sidwell, Shorey and Luke Young when players such as Maynor Figueroa, John Paintsil and Dickson Etuhu came into Fulham and Wigan respectively for much less, was indicative of O’Neill’s unimaginative transfer policy. The latter three signings would surely have left greater scope for a striker or creative midfielder of immediate quality, exactly what was needed in his first choice XI. Perhaps O’Neill’s lack of foreign transfer acumen, or a seeming taste for dealing with a largely British dressing room was his biggest flaw. Again he hadn’t done badly by maintaining the team’s position in the European positions, but stagnation would surely not cost £45m under a manager doing an ‘exceptional job’.
Last season saw another sixth place finished after spending £22m net more. With the increasing power of Tottenham and Manchester City, sixth again was by no means a failure but O’Neill’s selection, style and transfer policy was once again Anglo-centric. Stewart Downing came in to help relieve the pressure upon his creative midfielders, but at £10m he was by no means a bargain. Richard Dunne’s age, lack of re-sale value and his wages make his £6m transfer fee from Man City again look no better than good, despite his very impressive performances. That he was signed on deadline day along with James Collins indicates a distinct lack of planning from O’Neill, even if they turned out to be very good on the pitch. Stephen Warnock was a good addition to the first team but was not cheap at £8m. The signing of Fabian Delph has not provided immediate dividends, but he surely is for the future.
Once again Villa defended well for large parts of the season – Carlos Cuellar impressing especially – but the lack of depth up front meant again the strain fell upon Agbonlahor and Carew. They were often magnificent away to Big Four clubs but couldn’t breach top drawer defences at home. If O’Neill had spent some of his budget on a creative schemer rather than on Habib Beye and James Collins, perhaps they would have been able to crack the top four, especially with Liverpool’s capitulation.
In cup competitions O’Neill showed that he is an astute tactician, reaching an FA Cup Semi and a Carling Cup Final, but the major failing in both defeats was Villa’s inability to create and finish chances. In one-off games, against Chelsea and Manchester United, teams who struggle to create and finish their chances are generally punished. O’Neill’s whingeing about Nemanja Vidic’s ‘definite sending off’ in the Carling Cup final masked another disappointing attacking display, despite the early boon of Milner’s penalty.
Again O’Neill was unable to take his side to a higher level than he had in 2008, due in part to paying over the odds for players who were Premier League quality but not Champions League quality.
Thus while he did by no means a poor job at Aston Villa his net outlay when compared to Everton in 2008-09 (under a manager proving himself to be vastly superior) and to a lesser extent Spurs last season is indicative of a manager doing a solid, unspectacular job. Ultimately, that’s all he did, no more, less.