Poor old Sunderland. First Aston Villa take Darren Bent off their hands and then they have the genuine misfortune of signing away a three year contract to Martin O’Neill. Times must be very hard indeed up north, where money is tight, the logical step being to appoint a manager of MON’s calibre, famed for his ability to bring top 6 finishes on a shoestring.
Or rather not.
Sarcasm and banter aside, there is a purpose to this much pondered piece. And that is to awaken Sunderland fans to the fact that they have not pulled off a coup. Further, it should also serve to remind Villa fans that everything wasn’t all so rosy under O’Neill. Indeed, his actions, inability to take the team forward, astonishing waste of vast sums of the clubs/Randy Lerners fortune, brought our historic and beloved club to its knees. Need I mark one Emile Heskey as the principle evidence to those whom dissent? Heskey, the purchase made to drive Villa’s Champions League ambitions? The prosecution rests.
I have the utmost respect for Sunderland fans. But beware of Martin O’Neill. He possesses a rhetoric that is deceptive, has built a faux brand of trustworthiness, impassioned loyalty and every other sentence will remind you how “delighted” he is. Did I mention how humble he is? He’ll be sure to mention that as well.
But nothing that ever goes wrong will ever be his fault. Ever.
Man motivator? Rejuvenater of players? Quite the opposite – O’Neill will ostracise and overlook the very players he has bought if they don’t immediately buy into the philosophy and pray at the O’Neill altar. And whilst erratic dressing room harmony is less than desirable to any team wanting to progress, it is also detrimental to the balance sheet to harbour numerous expensive “misfits” along the way.
Nigel Reo-Coker, Luke Moore, Stephen Warnock, Stephen Ireland, Steve Sidwell, Gary Cahill, Thomas Sorenson, Moustapha Salifou, Shaun Maloney…but this is not a game of lists.
The myth of working to a budget was the biggest fallacy blown out of the water by O’Neill’s Aston Villa project. Whilst developing an exciting counter attacking team, there was never a move to add the personalities or personas that would take the squad to the next level. This was not about achieving success; O’Neill didn’t want to have the limelight shifted to a bigger star. In short, he must be the big fish. This is the same man that swapped Gary Cahill for Zat Knight afterall – he probably can’t wait to work with Titus Bramble.
Now, there can be the argument that the Alex Ferguson’s of this world have consistently maintained this ruthless approach – as in instances where Beckham’s influence extended beyond that of the managers he was shipped out. But in reality Ferguson has managed the worlds best players, to great and repeated successes. Rooney, Giggs, Stam, Keane, Yorke, Ronaldo and co. The difference is that Ferguson is a winner and O’Neill wants to give the perception that he is on the same par.
And thus O’Neill is a victim of his own hype – because quite simply he isn’t that good. A procurer of success? Or more accurately a perennial failure and nearly man? He won’t be bringing up the effort of qualifying for the Europa League before fielding a team of kids in Moscow having already beaten Ajax. Tricky thing reality checking on you like that. But in all seriousness, such failure was and is inexcusable for a man who holds himself in such high esteem. He did all he has promised Sunderland with Villa, before abandoning it, along with all sense and reason.
And under the notion of “value for money” Villa fans were under the impression for his entire tenure that we could only attract/afford the Heskey’s of this world; that we must focus and develop the Ashley Young’s and feel hard done to when they just missed out – or were sold on to our rivals. The belief still holds true for some that they had their heads turned by bigger things – well of course they did, with no reasonable prospect of O’Neill being capable of managing the team to anything higher or willing to add the faces who could make it happen.
The very idea we were operating to a limited “budget”. This was utter rubbish – there were ample funds, it was just that Martin casually overlooked that he had personally frittered it away on utter dross (Curtis Davies, Nicky Shorey, Habib Beye, James Collins…but less of these lists, facts don’t sit well afterall).
Which is why Villa’s purchase of Darren Bent in January 2011 underlines O’Neill’s failure. And it’s glaring. Yes, it was a vital £24m purchase as Villa lurched in the 2010/11 campaign – but it evidenced that the funds were there – and either he couldn’t be trusted (think Heskey) or he was a coward. Either notion will suffice.
It underlines how close Villa were – and how O’Neill’s stubbornness and inability to produce results at the very highest level, where key decisions matter, were the root cause and obstacle. Villa needed the Bent goals to elevate the squad in 2009 – but O’Neill’s refusal to make the big call, take on the potential ego of a star player and risk his own reputation should tell anyone all they need to know. We needed Bent – what O’Neill chose was Heskey. And he didn’t join Sunderland for £24m I recall (£15m).
Sympathisers will refer to how the cheque book was taken from him at the point he needed backing – we will never know – but even if it was, could the board at Villa be blamed? Whilst never spending big – and openly stating that he didn’t sign players because of the transfer fees requested – ignores the fact that beyond the first team Villa had accumulated a deceptively large squad, of average players on extortionate and crippling wages. Colossal mismanagement, which proves that time was wisely called upon his failings with club funds.
And this leads to the main problem. Sunderland is no longer under the direction of Niall Quinn or Ellis Short. It’s O’Neill’s club now. It would be misleading of me to suggest I know anything of Quinn’s/Short’s current day to day roles beyond the odd newspaper/TV feature. But under their stewardship Sunderland have been steady and have grown into a mainstay of Villa’s Premiership calendar. And this is welcome – I would rather face Sunderland with their heritage and a fan base that has more than a passing daytripper interest – than Arsenal and their suicidally dour manager and his “approach to football”. And that’s the truth.
Because O’Neill will want to control everything – and I would be incredibly fearful that what good work that has gone before to ground the club, make it sustainable and operate within its means – will get the O’Neill treatment. And he will no doubt get his way, under the aura of his “enthusiasm” and ability to “inspire”, “motivate”. It’s frankly a sham and one that Aston Villa foolishly bought into at great cost. Both in pure financial terms and in goodwill as the club now scrabbles around to rectify its numerous mistakes. The notion that MON must have input into the academy, the minuscule detail of the running of the club – it left a poisonous, ruinous fallout that made our club appear amateurish when Gerrard Houllier took the reins. It didn’t feel like Aston Villa, rather Martin O’Neill’s discarded plaything.
So – good luck to Sunderland. The most genuine of best wishes and heartfelt luck. It would be a great shame if your club, formed in 1879, should suffer from the blinkered, insular vision of a man who truly believes in his own press. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t concoct a bizarre set-up of overpaid players, put your finances on collision course with oblivion, sell you false dreams, sabotage half a decades work, submit his resignation (5 days before the season opener), before riding into the sunset to offer delusional “witty” punditry on the BBC.
Welcome back Martin; we’ll look forward to seeing you on the 21st April 2012.