Monday, 24 January 2011

What now for Martin O'Neill?

This time last week Martin O’Neill was the new West Ham manager.  Well almost. As it turns out, he declined The Hammers’ offer, to replace Avram Grant forcing the West Ham-fisted board of directors to publicly declare their support for their beleaguered boss. As I’ve already discussed O’Neill might not have been the right man for the Upton Park hotseat, yet the whole affair begged the question: What next for O’Neill?

At 58 he is by no means on the managerial scrap heap - (Alex Ferguson is 69, Harry Redknapp is 63, and Fabio Capello is 64) but an extended period out of the game right now would do him no favours.  So one is left wondering, at which club would he be best placed to re-start his managerial career?

Ironically, some might say it would be with a team like Aston Villa the club he walked out on five days before the start of this season.  If that job became available today and O’Neill had not worked there, it would be a match made in heaven.  O’Neill would be the ideal candidate to help the big-city club recapture its past glories.

Have I made a mistake, here?

And after four years with The Villans, he will know at first hand how hard it is and how much investment and patience is required to break into the top four, which will leave some questioning why he left in the first place.

That decision will be cast in an even harsher light by the club smashing its transfer record to secure the services of Darren Bent.  Let’s not forget that O’Neill walked out on Villa Park because he felt he didn’t have enough money to spend.

While many might argue that by not backing O’Neill, Randy Learner only has himself to blame for Villa’s current predicament and that the Bent signing is a panic response, you also can’t help wondering if the money was there all along but just wasn’t quite enough for O’Neill.  His resignation has echoes of that of his spiritual father Brian Clough from Derby County in 1973.

Whatsmore, Harry Redknapp’s success getting Tottenham into the Champions League at the second time of asking and their bold and gung-ho progress in the competition this season provides stark contrast with O’Neill’s time at Villa.

In four seasons he achieved three consecutive sixth-place finishes on a net outlay on players of about £80m, an annual wage bill of some £71m which, in the 2008/09 season was some £10m higher than Spurs' despite a significantly smaller revenue (£84.2m to £113m).

It’s hard to argue O’Neill had no backing and perhaps instead he had simply taken the club as far as he was able.

He could reasonably point to the Villains’ problems this season as evidence that he must have been doing something right, but whereas he was a strong contender for the Manchester United job just a few short years ago he is unlikely to top Old Trafford’s shortlist today, if he were to make it at all (and anyway Sir Alex has no plans for retirement in the foreseeable).

Other avenues have also been blocked off.  O’Neill made his interest in the Liverpool hot seat clear around the time of Roy Hodgson’s departure but the door at Anfield seems to have been closed as he doesn’t fit the Fenway Sports group’s long-term vision.

Arsene Wenger recently signed a contract keeping him at the Emirates until June 2014; Roman Abramovich has no history of appointing British managers.  And Roberto Mancini and Harry Redknapp seem safe at Manchester City and Tottenham respectively.

Even clubs like Everton, Sunderland and Newcastle are not in the market for a manager at the moment (although you never know with the soap opera that is St James’ Park). 

Given his current predicament, perhaps it’s worth a brief reappraisal of his managerial career.  O’Neill really hit the big time at Leicester where, after a shaky start (just three wins in 16 games) he gained promotion before achieving four consecutive top-10 Premier League finishes and – most notably – two League Cup triumphs.

But these two cup successes saw final wins over a Middlesbrough side set to be relegated from the Premier League and Division One Tranmere.  They also occurred at a time when the ‘Big Four’ clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool) saw little if any value in the competition.  Of the 16 finalists during that period, only two were from the Big Four.  By contrast, since 2005 eight of 12 finalists have come from the Big Four as well as five of the six winners - the other being Spurs who might reasonable claim to be a Big Four club now.

As good as it gets?

The Irishman is also fondly remembered in, at least half, of Glasgow where he revived Celtic, picked up seven trophies in five seasons, won the treble in his first, smashed Rangers’ dominance and reached the Uefa Cup final.

Not bad going, but some perspective: since 2003 Rangers, Middlesbrough and Fulham have all reached the final of Europe’s second football competition.  This means O’Neill is on a par with Walter Smith and the much-derided Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson.

O’Neill’s predecessor at Celtic was John Barnes whose tenure is remembered as a complete disaster, but his one season was marred and defined by the horror leg-break of Henrik Larsson.  In the 13 games prior to the Larsson’s injury Celtic won 12 and lost one scoring 42 goals.  In the 16 following the injury, Celtic won just seven scoring 33.

In O’Neill’s first season – when the treble was won – Larsson scored and astonishing 53 goals.  Perhaps, in another universe the Swede didn’t get injured and I’d be writing about Barnes being Celtic’s saviour.  Or perhaps not. 

Equally, O’Neill’s domestic record is arguably no better than that of his successor Gordon Strachan, who gained six trophies in four seasons, including three consecutive titles – a feat achieved by only two other Celtic managers – notably neither being O’Neill.  And the ‘dour’ Scot also steered Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League twice, another feat beyond O’Neill.  It’s also worth pointing out O’Neill had a considerably larger budget - Celtic were weighed down with debts of £30m when he left, yet were largely debt-free at the end of Strachan’s reign.

O’Neill’s an Northern Irish Catholic, whose father told him he should ‘walk across broken glass’ if he got the chance to play for Celtic, which goes someway to explaining why his achievements are held in such high regard by the Hoops fans but in reality he didn't do much better than a bloke who struggled with Middlesbrough in the Championship.

O'Neill's an entertaining bloke with a likeably eccentric manner who gives ‘good copy’ – perfect for the tabloid hacks, which also might explain why he gets an easy ride over the style of play his teams use compared to others, such as Sam AllardyceBut, in the cold light of day, there’s a nagging sense his achievements have been overstated.

Perhaps O’Neill will never quite get a crack at a truly big job and will instead being condemned to the touchlines of middle-sized clubs.  But then perhaps that’s his rightful place.

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