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Martin O’Neill Comes to his Senses

Photo by dalli58

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.

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  1. Qerero

    January 22, 2011 at 3:42 am

    I wonder what Lerner thinks when he reads this “MON didn’t get support from ownership” story again and again, then looks down at his wage bill which MON had sent skyrocketing to unprecedented levels, including a shocking amount of money on players who rarely figured or contributed nothing to the club.

    He may not have signed a 20-million pound player, and the 6th place finishes were certainly respectable, but he spent (read: wasted) more than his fair share of money at Villa Park.

  2. Smokey Bacon

    January 20, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    O’Neill will never manage Man Utd, Liverpool or a top 4 club. Overated beyond belief and has a history of throwing his toys out of the pram.

    • trickybrkn

      January 21, 2011 at 8:30 am

      Could you imagine him at Chelsea? Wouldn’t last a week.

      The suggestion of Man U and Arsenal was just naive.

    • MON Fan

      January 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

      Overated “beyond belief”? People say he is a good manager because Villa were challenging for a top 4 finish in the Premiership. I think that is a fair assessment. Never manage a top 4 club? He has got to be worth a shot, he cant be any worse then Hodgson. As for history of throwing toys, so has Mourinhio, which has got to be a positive

  3. trickybrkn

    January 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    to be fair… O’Neill did sign Reo-Coker and Harewood from West Ham for over 12.5 million. Harewood was let go Blackpool, after being loaned out in previous years, and Reo-Coker is still a rotation player. So he’s not the really a sure shot.

    besides the wikipedia like run down of his career, I’m not sure I understand your point?

    He turned down West Ham and left Villa cause he’s good enough for a job at Man U? City? Chelsea? Arsenal? Tottenham? and maybe Liverpool?

    He’s a good manager, has had noted issues with players, and really never did anything at Villa. So on what basis do you think he could handle Liverpool let alone City. ( He will never manage any of the other three you mentioned. Ahh Maybe Spuds. ) I’d say O’Neill is the same sort of manager at Alan Curbishley. Curbs kept Charlton up all those years with dull football. Had his own bust ups with players, and at the end of the day would not be able to handle a big club. He couldn’t handle West Ham. But he keeps you safe. Villa had some Europa success under O’Neill, but so too did Roy Hodgson and Steve McClaren while at ‘Boro. Both moved onto bigger adventures and failed. So maybe Martin came to the wrong sence about his future. or maybe it was just that West Ham are run so poorly that once her saw the inside back down.

    Gaffer, maybe it would be nice if you had new writers put a brief bio at the end. Would really help contextualize stories like this.

  4. VillaPark

    January 20, 2011 at 11:48 am

    I feel like either a lot of people are missing something with the O’Neill/Villa situation or I am clueless myself.

    Villa sold Milner after the first game of the season for a great price of £26m and were without a manager, so they didn’t have much time to bring in any significant transfers to start the year. Now that they found a replacement manager, they used £18m to bring in Darren Bent, £5m for Jean Makoun, and will probably get a few back with the sales of Steve Sidwell and John Carew (and maybe Stephen Ireland, too). In that case, it seems they are using the money from one sale for the others. To characterize these as panic buys or spending when they wouldn’t with MON seems waaaay off.

    I was under the impression that MON made an ultimatum, Lerner called his bluff, and MON actually decided to resign. Mainly stemming from the fact that MON wasted money in the transfer market for the past few years and Lerner wanted to rein him in. With a manager now firmly in place, it would seem that Lerner would again have no trouble spending money on transfers that will make a big impact with the added motivation that really tells MON what he thinks with his actions.

    Am I off about anything here?

    • Dan

      January 21, 2011 at 11:33 am

      I think youre about right concerning the circumstances of MONs resignation. I think his transfer activities were mixed, he traded baros for carew (no idea how he pulled that one off), got young for 9 million, milner for 10-12 mill, Friedel for like 3 mill etc, although the wage bill was definitely a problem. We’ll never really know whether the money was there for MON to spend, and if not, whether that was his reason for leaving. But outside the financial area, MONs man management was superb, he got the very best out of his players and debatably got them overperforming. Glad hes not gone to West Ham, he can do better.

  5. Stunned Duck

    January 20, 2011 at 10:08 am

    “Considering Lerner’s restraint in the transfer market and the size of his squad”

    It wasn’t Lerner’s restraint. O’Neill was responsible for all the restraint in the transfer market and the size of the squad during his Villa tenure. He apparently preferred to run with a team just large enough to physically survive an EPL season.

    Part of O’Neill’s problem, going forward, is that Aston Villa *was* a big job. He had more financial support from ownership than he’ll get anywhere outside of a Man City or a Chelsea, and he had complete control of the team. If he is bemused by the money spent on Darren Bent, then he should be reevaluating his own transfer policies and approach to squad building. The money was there if he wanted to use it. Apparently it was more important to him to A) drastically overpay his bench and B) to hang onto James Milner particularly instead of using Man City’s money to further redevelop the squad.

    Frankly, having to discuss terms with West Ham is being hoist on his own petard. I hope he learns from the experience, because I like the guy in general and wish him well. But walking away from Villa was a stupid, petulant, silly move.

    • Peter

      January 21, 2011 at 7:51 am

      In response to point B – Lerner had commited to a sell to buy policy moving into the current season. Fair enough. When it was made known that none of the sale money from Milner going to City would be made available to re-invest into the team was the point where O’Neill quit the club. The relationship was strained as it was, but when the transfer policy commitment changed it appears to have been the final straw.

  6. Earl Reed

    January 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Great article. Something you didn’t touch on though, take Villa’s current plight. If you’re John Henry or the Glazers or Abramovich, and you see O’Neill quit days before the season and send his team into a serious battle for their Premier League lives…doesn’t that count as a knock against O’Neill? Can he expect a serious contender to give him the reigns when he has shown he has the audacity to leave on a whim? Especially in August, after transfers and training, when good managerial candidates are least likely to leave their current situation?

    I’d be concerned that O’Neill would be waiting a long time for a top 5 club to come calling.

    • Guy

      January 20, 2011 at 9:46 am

      Good points, Earl. I was always impressed with O’Neill until his walkout. It had all the appearance of a hissy-fit and certainly the timing couldn’t have been worse for the club and the players you assume he admired. He does not yet have the stature to pull that off without loss of reputation.

      However, time is a great healer and at least O’Neill has kept his mouth shut. I’m sure he’ll get another shot, but like you I don’t see any big club looking his way, at least for the time being.

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