In what has to be one of the strangest stories so far to come out of the 2010-11 Premier League season, there were rumors abound going into West Ham United’s match with Arsenal that even a win was not likely to save Manager Avram Grant’s job. That is not the odd bit of the story though, the real revelation was that Martin O’Neill had been tapped to be his replacement by club owners David Gold and David Sullivan.
The fact that Grant’s job has been under threat has been a surprise to no one. The club has been mired at the bottom of the table for the better half of the season. Grant’s name has been tossed around in the press frequently as the next manager to get the dreaded sack. He has already faced an unusual ultimatum over the Holiday period to get 3 points from a string of 3 matches. He did better than that, he was at the helm to oversee West Ham pick up 7 points from those targeted matches. That run of form briefly pulled West Ham not only off the foot of the table but out of the relegation zone.
Unfortunately for Grant and West Ham this season is shaping up to be like none other. Teams have been falling in and dragging themselves out of the drop zone with regularity. As many as 6 teams have been in the bottom 3 over the course of the last few months. And for all of the progress West Ham had made up, there they sit back at the bottom. The one positive facing West Ham is with all the teams in serious relegation danger, there are more than a few of the famed “relegation 6 pointers” left on the fixture list.
For Grant he must sit back and wonder how different his career might have been had John Terry’s plant foot had not slipped out from under him in a driving rain on a memorable night in Moscow May 2008. What should have been a Champions League clinching penalty for European glory hungry Chelsea drifted right and off the post and along with it went the European Cup and any hope Grant had in staying on as boss of one of the world’s biggest clubs. Of course that team was Jose Mourinho’s but had Terry bagged that penalty the history books would have shown it was Grant that led the Blues that night to victory.
Instead he was shown the door by Roman Abramovich and eventually turned up at one of his former clubs Portsmouth. Portsmouth would get relegated in the season prior but it is universally accepted that turmoil in the revolving door that was Portsmouth’s owner’s box and boardroom led to the downfall and near extinction. Grant came out of that mess as the man leading a valiant Portsmouth team that barely had enough squad members to carry out fixtures. They earned the respect of many a pundit and football fan around England and beyond for the way they went down, the first Premier Club that got docked points for entering administration, and yet that did not deter them from playing sometimes above the potential of a depleted side.
Grant’s time at West Ham has been less glorious. The result has been constant speculation of his impending termination. Enter last weekend’s news that Martin O’Neil was on his way to Upton Park to save the day. O’Neill left Aston Villa in a shock move just days prior to the kickoff of this season’s campaign. His departure has seen Aston Villa sink deep into the relegation dogfight. Villa is still trying to recover from his exit which came about because O’Neill felt he was not getting the backing of Villa owner American Randy Lerner. That reason for his departure makes the mention of his name at West Ham even stranger when you consider the ownership style of Mr. Gold and Sullivan has been notorious for their hands on and at times frugal approach both at West Ham and before at Birmingham.
To the further bemusement of O’Neill no doubt was his replacement Gerard Houllier signing striker Darren Bent for £18 Million from Sunderland. Not bad a bad bit of business for Sunderland, Bent’s former club, who not only got rid of a want away striker but got more than a fair price for what is widely regarded as England’s 4th to 6th choice hit man up top.
Back to O’Neill though, the guy can flat out manage a side. Having played and won trophies at Nottingham Forest at the end of the 1970’s for legendary boss Brian Clough, O’Neill has no doubt learned a few things from his days under “Cloughie”. In today’s modern game he may be as close as it gets to a hard nosed no nonsense manager, which Clough was maybe not off the pitch but certainly in his dealings on it.
He has established himself as a minor success on the touchline since he started at Wycombe Wanderers. There he learned his trade while getting Wycombe promoted on successive occasions up to what is now League 2 in the English pyramid at the end of the ’93-’94 season. He had a brief spell at Norwich before he arrived at Leicester in 1995. It was there his stock as a manager began to rise. He led the Foxes to 2 League Cup triumphs in 1997 and 2000. The League Cup may not be the prize silverware in England, but for a small club like Leicester to take it home twice in O’Neill’s reign was no small feat.
From there he would go north of the border to Scotland in 2000 and return Celtic to the top of Scottish football. He would also make Celtic relevant again in Europe. He led the Hoops to within a whisker of the 2003 UEFA Cup falling to Porto on penalties. That Porto side that would expand on that triumph the following year by winning the Champions League having been led by some fellow named Mourinho. He would leave Celtic honorably in 2005 to go and tend to his ailing wife as she battled illness.
O’Neill would reappear of course most recently at Villa in 2006. His time at Villa Park has to be considered a modest success. Villa did not crack the top 4 and make the Champions League in any of O’Neill’s season with Villa which is no doubt a clear bonanza to those teams that can qualify. He did however raise the bar and while Villa did not qualify for the Champions League they were in the race, particularly the past 3 seasons. Considering Lerner’s restraint in the transfer market and the size of his squad it must be said O’Neill squeezed every bit out of those sides and then some to even get a sniff of that top 4 finish.
His recent successes reviving Celtic and making Villa a solid top half finisher makes it puzzling how his name could even be linked with West Ham. Nothing against the Hammers but for O’Neill this has to be considered a downward move. He has already led the smaller club (Leicester) and did so quite successfully. It is time for Martin O’Neill to get a big job. His name has been mentioned and seriously considered twice before for England but being a Northern Irishman and being still fairly young for a manager that job seems too far of a stretch.
It would be far more interesting to see him run one of England’s bigger clubs. Whether the seemingly posh types at Chelsea, for example, could handle a man who demands so much of his players would make for interesting viewing. There would be no snoods on any of his players. And that is the rub he faces, is that he cannot handle the big names and egos of the modern game. He works better with lesser players that will work their socks off for him it is said but is that a terrible thing? To that criticism I present Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, James Milner, Gareth Barry and the list could go on. The point is they are now household names, with the latter two being sold off for a nice price for Villa to collect, week in and out in the league and they much of that to O’Neill and their time at Villa.
It was a relief to see the madness subside late Saturday into Sunday with the news that Martin O’Neill was not going to West Ham. He would be wise to bide his time and wait for a job to open at one of the current top 5 sides (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham) or Liverpool. There are signs of great potential within him as a manager and if he wants to reach the heights of his former boss Brian Clough he needs to go to one of these clubs in order to realize the promise he has shown.