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Martin O'Neill Did A Solid Job At Aston Villa: No More, No Less.

Aston Villa's coach Martin O'Neil gestures after their English Premier League soccer match against Blackburn Rovers in Blackburn in a February 7, 2009 file photo. O'Neill resigned as Aston Villa's manager on Monday just five days before the start of the new Premier League season. The 58-year-old Northern Irishman announced his decision in a joint statement with chief executive Paul Faulkner on the club website REUTERS/Nigel Roddis/files (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT SOCCER) NO ONLINE/INTERNET USAGE WITHOUT A LICENCE FROM THE FOOTBALL DATA CO LTD. FOR LICENCE ENQUIRIES PLEASE TELEPHONE ++44 (0)

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.

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  1. Ciaran

    January 6, 2011 at 4:42 am

    How are Villa getting on these days? Some fantastic revisionism at work here.

  2. Duncan

    November 3, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I think this is very harsh on O’Neill as he’s established Villa at the top of the second tier of PL clubs (i.e. with the top 4 becaming a top 5 with ManCity spending big bucks). Blaming O’Neill for the transfer fees and salaries paid seems OTT, surely it’s the club’s chief executive negotiating the salary / contract and not the manager or do you know differently ?

  3. Smokey Bacon

    August 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    How overated is this guy? A big time bottler who throws his toys out of the pram at every opportunity. Well done Lerner for standing his ground. O’Neill had ample resources to get Villa into the top 4 and failed. End of. Not a bad manager but not a great one either.

  4. Mark

    August 11, 2010 at 2:08 am

    Michael – your welcome. I posted his transfer spending record yesterday as well as making the Moyes comparison (Moyes spent less net in the last 4 years than MON averaged in 4 years at AV, yet Everton finished ahead of AV in 3 of those 4 years). All the transfer histories for clubs can be found at which is a very nice resource.

    A well written and well reasoned article. MON should get some credit for helping Milner and Young develop, although Young and Agbonlahor haven’t developed to the point of forcing their way into the nat’l team which is baffling. The most damning aspect of MON’s tenure is the second half collapse in each of the last 2 seasons.

  5. Daniel Cremin

    August 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    I don’t understand your point about Moyes as Arteta, Yakubu, Saha, Cahill and Fellaini have all been relatively expensive signings in the same period.

    In response – we’ve funded nearly all of those moves by selling players – the exception was summer 2007 when we really did open up the chequebook somewhat;

    Arteta was a £1M loan fee in January 2005 + £2.2M transfer fee in summer 2005 for start of 2005/6

    Yakubu cost £11 million – admittedly this was a big transfer and was done in summer 2007 (we also brought in Jags for £4 miliion and Leighton Baines for 6 million) but we paid for most of the Yak with sale of Beattie for £4 million and then McFadden in January 2008 window for 4.5 million

    Saha was essentially a free transfer – we paid Man Utd a ‘nominal fee’ unlikely to be more than at very most a couple of hundred grant and got a world class stiker. His wages are now at the 45-55k range but we brought him in for around 30-40k a week depending on appearences and there wasn’t a big signing fee.

    Cahill – A measley £1.5 million – one of the best bits of business ever done in Premiership given his goal return ratio.

    Fellaini – quoted inaccurately by media as £15 million when actually it was a euros figure and only around £12.8 million at the time – amortized over 2-3 years from memory – we funded the up front buy (we had no cash that summer) by selling Andy Johnson for around 10 million so it was really only a small dip into the market.

    Our big buys last year – Heitinga, Distin and the £10 million on Bilyaletdinov were basically cost neutral based on the proceeds of the Lescott sale – we spent net last year about 2-3 million.

  6. Michael Scallon

    August 10, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for comments.

    Feel free to give me a tweet –

  7. avillian136

    August 10, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    he did more than that he stabalised the club into the top half of the table consistently which no other manager did and made pretty much all his team play to the top of there ability meaning we have players like barry, laursen, dunne, milner, agbonlahor, young, carew and many more playing to a level no-one thought they had. you can’t say we didn’t get cheated in either of those carling cup final or facup Semi final. i think if he had trusted his players more and rested some players then we would b in the top 4 now because in the last two seasons we have done the same thing, play fantastic till january or maybe even february, scoring a huge number of goals and not letting much in then we tire and win like 4 or 5 games from then on until the end of the season like last season or even win like 2 or 3 games from february onwards like we did in 2008-2009, so maybe baring in mind this we won’t do that bad this season if the manager rests the players, and villa have enough backup to do this now. obviously top 4 is out of the question but maybe 7th or 8th isn’t that unrealistic.
    gd article and most of the stuff u say is correct but maybe your being a little harsh on what o’neill achieved as i believe he has carved villa’s future through what he has done with stabilising us as a club and establishing us as a regular top 6 club, and the young players we have coming through this season is ridiculous and r probably better than most of the 1st teamers. so even if it takes time it the future looks gd for claret and blue

  8. Chris McQuade

    August 10, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    This is revisionism of the highest nature! Martin O’Neill did spend when the funds were available to him but the stature of Aston Villa comparitive to Liverpool and Tottenham meant that he had to look for the unappreciated gems. He had to build a team of his own after the shambles of David O’Leary. Taking a team from 16 to 11,6,6,6 is an unbelievable turnaround. This was brought about by money but also good management. The development of Milner, Agbonlahor and Young are an example of his legacy.

    Villa maintained their position much like Everton, i don’t understand your point about Moyes as Arteta, Yakubu, Saha, Cahill and Fellaini have all been relatively expensive signings in the same period. Also so many other teams spent as much as Villa with no results. Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough spent alot on guff. Finally consistency is difficult enough in the Premier League (hello Liverpool) never mind constant improvement. Yes Yes Yes 6,6,6 but the team progressed further and further in other competitions. Yes they got beat by Manchester United and Chelsea, alot of teams do (Hello again Liverpool) but United felt compelled to play their best teams knowing the threat Villa now showed.

    O’Neill was great for Aston Villa. Great.

    • Rob McCluskey

      August 10, 2010 at 6:26 pm

      85% of Villa’s turnover accounts for wages, if you look at it like a company (like I’m sure practically all chairmans do these days) I’m not surprised that Lerner wanted to reduce that a bit, hes backed O’Neill over and over again yet all of a sudden people seem to forget that.

      If you’ve got a wage bill that high and you’re getting silly money offers for players like Milner I’m not surprised the chairman wants to cash in. He did a great job and was a good manager, but I’m a bit surprised he has spat his dummy out just because hes not allowed to drag the team further into debt. There is no limitless pot of money, even Ferguson understands at Man Utd that hes restricted in the transfer market but he doesn’t complain.

  9. Ivan

    August 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I know this is off-topic, but see below the press release by Direct TV confirming FSC is coming in HD as of tomorrow. Also there will be HD matches on FS Plus, and, like last year, they will have a number of channels dedicated only to live Champions League, Europa League, and La Liga games.
    It is official, Direct TV is the ultimate paradise for football fans!!!
    (I was the one bashing Direct TV for the last year or so for not having FSC in HD, but now this is all about to change; so friggin’ happy! Is it Saturday morning yet???)
    See link below:

  10. dlink09

    August 10, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    with the investment he did it, but you can not just spend away..
    so he quit. good luck to him.. may be he will find a club who can spend

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