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What if Martin O’Neill Had Stayed at Aston Villa? Could They Have Won the Title?

Martin O'Neill - Barclays Manager of the Month - April 2010

The decline of Premier League as a force in European football has been on display for the world to see since the 2009-10 season. That campaign was also the final season in a three-year run where Martin O’Neill guided a largely English Aston Villa side into the top six of the Premier League. With the decline of the league since that point and the resignation of O’Neill in the summer of 2010 and the subsequent fire sale of players it is interesting to speculate on what might have happened otherwise.

It is entirely possible had the Villa team stayed together under O’Neill they would have competed for multiple Premier League titles. Since leaving Villa, James Milner, Gareth Barry and Ashley Young have all been key squad contributors to Premier League winning sides. Stewart Downing, who was not used properly by Liverpool has moved to West Ham and is one of the biggest reasons why Sam Allardyce’s Hammers sit in the top four at Christmas. It’s also worth speculating that the development of players like Fabian Delph, Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and others would have been accelerated with a stable coaching and growing environment at Villa Park.

English soccer has become weaker at the top since O’Neill left Aston Villa. The Villa side he built that relied on quick counter-attacking would have found lots of success in a league that today is characterized by defensive errors, bad giveaways and a growing obsession with “style” over the substance of results.

O’Neill’s teams employed Emile Heskey and John Carew as effective target strikers. While Heskey has been mocked by many fans, he was a model professional and world-class players like Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney found playing with him as the perfect foil for their games. Carew was an underrated goalscorer whose versatility was perfect for O’Neill’s tactical plan.  As Carew and Hesley faded, they could have been replaced by a similarly styled players like Andy Carroll or Charlie Austin.

In hindsight, many would argue that a midfield with Milner, Downing, Young and the skipper Stiliyan Petrov would have been able to compete with the bigger teams in the league today. Petrov of course was tragically diagnosed with leukemia in 2012 and retired from professional soccer in 2013. Downing was bought in the summer of 2009 when Barry left the club.

The defense was always solid if unspectacular. O’Neill’s defensive minded tactics allowed Villa to get the most out of the experienced talent at the back, and in a watered down Premier League I am convinced they would have been very effective in this era.

Barry left the club in the summer of 2009, and in another era, Barry would have been a certified Villa legend having joined the club at 16. However, the lucrative money offer from Manchester City proved too much for the player to resist and he joined Mark Hughes side. Barry’s tactical understanding and discipline ended up being a major factor in the Citizens 2011-12 Premier League title. The midfielder was a mainstay of Roberto Mancini’s team even though the Italian manager was blessed with far more expensive and attractive options in central midfield.

Young has developed a reputation for diving, but without his craft and tactical flexibility on the left side of midfield, both Sir Alex Ferguson and now Louis Van Gaal would be far poorer in crafting a successful Manchester United side. Milner’s impact on Manchester City’s haul of four trophies in the four seasons he has been with the side speaks for itself. He remains the one English outfield player that is consistently in manager Manuel Pellegrini’s plans.

In theory, Villa might have won a Premier League title had the club’s squad under O’Neill been held together. In particular had Barry not been sold and Downing still been bought the club would have likely finished 4th in 2009-10. Had this happened, Champions League money would have flowed in, O’Neill would not have left in frustration and the rest might be history.

Instead, Villa has become a yearly relegation contender, a big club toiling in the bottom reaches of the top-flight. English soccer has become weaker at the top and fewer and fewer domestically grown players are making an impact on the title race. It’s fun to think about what might have happened if things had turned out differently. English soccer might never have been the same.

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  1. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    January 7, 2015 at 11:14 am

    I don’t think AVFC would have won the title unless they spent much more, and Lerner was done opening the checkbook by that time. The highest Villa got was 6th for what, 3 seasons in a row? Most of those players left for greener pastures and bigger money (I’m not blaming them). MON also spent a lot on poor talent that helped put Villa in the relegation fights they’ve experienced the past few seasons.

    I don’t think it was MON’s talent as a manager as much as a large payroll. While you still need the right manager for the club (see Moyes and United), Chelsea, United, City, and others with sugar daddys will be contending by default with anyone managing because of their absurd payroll. They might not win it, but will be up there.

  2. utdfan

    December 26, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Interesting piece.

    Man fellow United supporters scratch their heads when I say this, but O’Neill was the one I had hoped would take over Ferguson’s position when the latter retired. This article outlines my reasons why.

    There is one glaring omission in the article though: Gabby Agbonlahor. I rate him higher than Young, and would have loved to see him dovetail with Ronaldo and Rooney after Tevez left.

    • Gringo

      December 27, 2014 at 3:35 pm

      O’Neill is no longer up to the demands of modern club football. Observers of Aston Villa know this well. A bias against foreign players and absurd transfer fees and wages spent on garbage players effectively crushed any hope Villa had of cracking the top 4.

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