Monday, 17 January 2011

Is O'Neill really right for West Ham?

By the time you read this Martin O’Neill might have replaced Avram Grant as the manager at West Ham.  Or he might not.  Not for the first time the dismissal of a Premier League boss has been conducted with all the sensitivity of a lumberjack performing brain surgery with a chain saw.

The accepted view is that the Irishman will bring much-needed passion and desire to the club, invigorating them and saving them from the drop.
Boring: Avram Grant

Sky Sports news even created a montage to that effect – contrasting Grant’s dour reaction to West Ham’s second goal against Birmingham in the Carling Cup semi-final with a clip of O’Neill pogo-ing around the technical area like Zebedee on speed.  But is this really how things will turn out?  Is Martin O’Neill really what West Ham need right now?

It’s certainly true that anyone employing O’Neill will get enthusiasm in spades, but what they won’t get is a manager used to a relegation battle.

In their book The 90-Minute Manager, David Bolchover and Chris Brady discuss the need for clubs appointing new managers to get the right ‘strategic fit’.  Too often, they argue, managers have been appointed ‘to achieve a specific set of goals purely on the basis of their attainment of utterly different goals and have subsequently failed’.

A manager might have a great reputation, but be wrong for a new club’s needs at any given time and in that sense O’Neill would appear to be a gamble.  Not once has he stepped in to save a team from the drop or been sucked into a genuine relegation battle with one of his own teams.

Exciting: Martin O'Neill

What’s more, O’Neill’s teams tend to start much better than they finish.  In his eight seasons managing in the Premier League to-date the last five (four at Villa and his last season at Leicester City) have seen better returns for his sides from the first 15 than the last 15 games.  One other saw an equal return and of the other two - which saw a better return from the last fifteen games - one was by only one point.

In those eight seasons, O’Neill’s teams gained on average 20.375 points in their last 15 games – West Ham currently have 20 points with 15 games left so a similar return would place West Ham on 40 or 41 points this season – squeaky bum time for sure.

Significantly this pattern was repeated in all five seasons he spent at Celtic, despite the inherent dominance of that club over all but one other team in Scotland.

Clearly, O’Neill could lead the Hammers to safety and write his name into the history books of yet another club, but it seems he gets greater returns from a squad fresh from the summer break than one feeling the effects of half a tough season.  Furthermore, those results came at clubs where he had had the chance to buy in his own players, and impose his vision over a period of time – O’Neill’s managerial career is built on the stability gained from application over a period of time - a luxury he will not have should he join West Ham.

This is reinforced by the fact that his first season at Villa – where he took over just two weeks before the first game and had little time to work with the players – saw his least productive start to a season at the club. 

A further note of caution - the last time O’Neill took over a team mid-season – at Leicester in December 1995 – he had a wretched start.  When he arrived, the team sat in third just two points off top spot, but after his first 16 games in charge they had slumped to ninth and out of the playoffs having gained just three wins and 16 points in that time.  That 16th game was a home defeat to Sheffield United that left fans so disgruntled many were calling for O’Neill’s head and several hundred even tried to storm the dressing room.  Now that game’s merely a footnote in O’Neill’s career but it’s one well worth remembering.

Finally, Hammers fans are used to seeing football played the ‘West Ham way’ – a passing game played with attacking flair. West Ham managers who do not adhere to this style, such as Lou Macari and Alan Curbishley, came in for criticism from parts of the crowd.

There is the perception in some quarters that he is a thinly-disguised long-ball tactitician – a thinking man’s Sam Allardyce – would this brand of football be well received in the long-term? 

O’Neill is well known for taking his time when considering job offers.  Perhaps it is the Upton Park board that should reconsider it’s choice this time round.


Martin Palazzotto said...

I think the reference to O'Neill's side's getting out of the gate like rabbits and then fading works against your assessment of his qualifications for West Ham.

When you think about it, he'd be starting in January and if holds to form, he'd be giving the Goldivan just what they want. They wouldn't have to worry about the other shoe dropping unti this time next year.

For my money though, Chris Hughton would be the best fit.

Roger Domeneghetti said...

That is not an unreasonable point to make. However, it's clear O'Neill gets best out of players when he's had the chance to impose his own vision (and bring in his 'own men') which takes time he would not have had at West Ham.
His high-tempo game seems to be more suited to fresh players at the start of a season, not tired players near the end of the season. When you combine all that with his limited (and poor) experience of taking over a club mid-season it's probably best all round he hasn't taken the job.
Chris Hughton has nothing on his CV to suggest he can save a club from relegation - maybe he's the man for the Upton Park hotseat should they go down?
For my money Sam Allardyce, with three relegation battles successfully fought, would be ideal for West Ham in the short term.