News of Martin O’Neill’s decision to quit as manager of Aston Villa just days before the start of the new Premier League season was greeted with shock and surprise by most football fans. The truth is much different however with O’Neill’s growing frustration at not being allowed to strengthen his squad resulting in a strained relationship with the club owner over the past number of months.
The final straw for the Ulsterman was not – as widely reported – the imminent sale of England international James Milner to Manchester City but the fact the Aston Villa manager would not be allowed to reinvest any of the potential 30 million euro transfer money in his young squad. That coupled with increasing rumours of Ashley Young’s possible departure to Tottenham Hotspur and last year’s protracted transfer of club captain and talisman Gareth Barry to Man City proved too much to take.
O’Neill’s timing couldn’t be worse for a Villa side widely tipped to battle it out with Spurs, Everton and Manchester City for at least a top six finish this coming term and the midlands club now find themselves manager-less just days away from the big kick-off.
The response from Aston Villa fans has been one of utter disappointment at the timing of O’Neill’s departure more than anything else. All agree O’Neill’s managerial acumen (and Lerner’s money) has brought the club forward and turned Villa into a regular challenger for European places. Some feel O’Neill should have been facilitated with extra funding to compete for a place in Europe this term and build on the good work done over the past number of seasons which garnered three consecutive top six finishes.
There is no doubt that Martin O’Neill has improved Aston Villa since taking the helm but the emergence of Manchester City’s influence in the transfer market and Harry Redknapp’s renaissance at Spurs has stymied any hopes of Villa breaking into the top four. Having amassed a youthful and talented squad at Villa Park, O’Neill probably felt entitled to ask that Lerner open his cheque book to challenge the likes of City and Spurs ahead of the 2010-2011 campaign.
So why hasn’t the American owner come out to back his manager? Firstly, Lerner inherited O’Neill as a manager when he took the reigns back in 2006 and Villa were wallowing in the bottom half of the table. O’Neill – for all his managerial abilities – was not Lerner’s choice as coach but the two worked well together in the opening two seasons and results gradually improved.
O’Neill’s protestations at Villa’s quietness during the current transfer window sounds a little hollow when the truth is Lerner has never been shy about investing since taking control. Lerner can point to the fact he has invested nearly 150 million over the past four seasons in attempting to re-establish Villa as a force in English football.
But a host of O’Neill transfers that failed to deliver must have had Lerner questioning his continuing investment. Curtis Davies was bought for 8 million, Steve Sidwell for 5 million and Emile Heskey for 3.5 million. None of those players along with additional purchases such as Nigel Reo-Coker worked out and in the midst of a global recession can you blame Lerner for at least entertaining the idea of getting over 30 million for Milner and half that for Ashley Young?
The American’s wish to stabilise the club both on and off the pitch has proven successful but failure to continue the investments necessary to keep pace with the top five or six clubs resulted in Martin O’Neill deciding he could not take the club further.
Failure to match O’Neill’s burning ambitions and to adequately replace the Ulsterman with a suitable successor could see the Villa faithful turning on Randy Lerner.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled \’Off Centre Circle’, published by the Evening Echo, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork amateur soccer player.