It’s an old story but under the present circumstances bears retelling. Very early on in his career at Nottingham Forest, Martin O’Neill got into a contract dispute with the club’s legendary manager Brian Clough. A local hack, no doubt primed by the tyrannical and manipulative Clough, wrote a newspaper article castigating the young midfielder for his ingratitude and greed. The gist of the criticism was that somebody who’d been plucked from obscurity should be more thankful and more aware of the opportunity he’d been afforded at the City Ground.
Most players would have let the matter lie. Not O’Neill. He wrote a letter to the editor requesting a simple clarification about the story. He’d been plucked, not from obscurity, but from second year law at Queens’ University Belfast. A small yet crucial difference. The above yarn is part of the O’Neill legend and it goes some way to explaining why sportswriters love the Aston Villa manager so much. He is educated, bright and articulate. Those are rare qualities in a game peopled by bland, poorly educated characters who speak in clichés and platitudes. The dearth of good talkers is such that foreign managers are regarded as intellectual giants if they can talk broken English. It also helps that O’Neill has a quirky personality. An aficionado of murder trials, this is the guy who knew so much about the assassination of John F. Kennedy that on a trip to Dallas with Leicester City, he ended up giving the local taxi driver directions to Lee Harvey Oswald’s house.
All of the above is relevant because it puts into context the tepid media response to the recent problems at Villa Park. In an age when managers come under huge pressure at the first sign of bad results, O’Neill has escaped serious criticism, largely because he is one of the journalists’ favorites. This is not any fault of his own. The press pack is often desperate, clinging to anybody capable of making their jobs easier with decent quotes.
For further evidence of this tendency, see the deification of Harry Redknapp by the London papers. You’d think he was Jose Mourinho the way they talk about the Spurs’ manager, not somebody whose claim to fame is one devalued F.A. Cup triumph.
Last Saturday’s victory over Bolton Wanderers may have temporarily ended speculation about O’Neill but it seems apparent that things may be coming to a head for him at the club. According to the newspaper reports, the manager is annoyed at the lack of investment available to improve the squad. The relationship between himself and American owner Randy Lerner is said to have deteriorated and the end may come the moment this league campaign is over. O’Neill’s legion of journalistic supporters have been quick to peddle this view.
According to some fans though, the problem is of a different nature. They contend that the Derryman has taken the team as far as he can and has been exposed for being a little short of top quality himself in recent months. In particular, they believe he is tactically sterile, that his team never really have a plan B, and, in spite of boasting some of England’s most exciting attackers (hardly the boast it once was), he’s a tad negative in his approach.
Of course, this is regarded as sacrilegious in some quarters. The thinking is that just by having Villa in the shake-up for fourth for so long O’Neill has performed a feat of managerial genius. His signing of Richard Dunne is a legitimate contender for bargain buy of the season and after all, this is the same man who won so much at Celtic. However, Scottish success is not the calling card it once was, and again, there are avid hoops watchers who can cite occasions where the team actually under-achieved on O’Neill’s watch there. Blasphemy, but there you go.
The biggest indictment of his reign was John Terry’s assertion that Chelsea knew going into their recent 7-1 thumping of Villa that O’Neill’s side tend to tire in the last half hour of the game. This charge may have been roundly refuted by the denizens of Villa Park but what does it say about the team’s reputation that opponents actually believe that?
Is this impression the fault of a manager playing too many of the same players week in week out and refusing to recognize the need to rest some? Not to mention the questions it poses about the fitness regime at the club. Or is all this simply the fault of an owner who hasn’t allowed that boss to bolster the squad with reinforcements that would allow him the luxury of rotation?
Where you stand on that argument largely depends on whether you believe O’Neill is a genius wringing every last drop from a limited squad or a man over-rated by a media too quick to regard him as infallible. On the surface, reaching the final of the Carling Cup and the semi-final of the FA Cup is almost as good as it gets for a non-top four side in the modern era.
“Of course, Martin is integral to taking Villa on to the next stage,” said Ashley Young, the other day. “Since he has come in, the club has gone up step by step and you cannot ask for more than that.”
Still, the Villa Park regulars who have booed the team more than once in recent weeks (the ones who label him “Martin O’Myth” on the message boards) will point to the signing of Emile Heskey and a recurring tendency to play players out of position as worrying evidence their manager has run out of ideas.
If there are merits to both views, what’s not in dispute is that in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, O’Neill has the perfect opportunity to gain revenge for the recent annihilation and for Terry’s questions about fitness. It’s also the ideal platform to show that he is the manager his inflated newspaper reputation suggests he is.