Spotlight: MON: The Northern Irish Self Destruct Button – ‘Thran’

Martin O'Neill Aston Villa

It’s been ten years since Martin O’Neill pressed the self-destruct button on not only Aston Villa but his own managerial career.

At the time the football world was shocked and over the ensuing years people have become more and more baffled by the happening. If you are from Ireland, particularly the North like me this is no surprise, it’s hard-wired in our nature.

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When O’Neill was appointed, it felt like the perfect storm for me, a countryman managing Villa. Despite a number of contributions to Villa history like Peter McParland, Chris Nicholl and then squad members Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes, more famous Villa connections had come from the South of Ireland in my formative years.

I was thrilled and with the Randy Lerner money I lived the dream and saw more and more replica shirts around Belfast and beyond. At the back of my head though a niggling doubt always remained about his longevity in the role.

Without digging into our history, a country with as confused an identity and penchant for violence is always going to breed a few traits in its population and this has borne out in many of its sporting talents.

The word thran was often used by my Grandmother born in 1912 with a distant family connection to the family of George Best. When you had families of fourteen and with a geographical location as small as here, this isn’t uncommon. Thran, put simply, means stubborn, not any kind of stubborn though, full on, ‘pick this ridiculous hill to die on with no thought of how it will affect your future bridge-burning’ kind of stubborn.

Looking at George Best, many people correctly point to his problems with alcohol, but then they stop there. What they don’t look into is what drove him to drink. The stories of the genius on the pitch who was playing a different game to everyone else, how he was such a perfectionist that he couldn’t accept it when United began to decline and probably refusal to accept he may have been a small part of this. Sound familiar?

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Look at other figures from Northern Ireland, they never seem to stray too far from controversy and a refusal to see that some of this is brought on themselves.

World Snooker Champion Alex Higgins, Neil Lennon, James McClean, F1 driver Eddie Irvine and more have all courted and had to deal with controversy in their own ways.

Whether it is punching Ayrton Senna in your debut season or dressing your children up as terrorists on social media, people from this small province have a real problem in seeing themselves as a contributing factor. They are so thran, that they cannot give a little if it goes against their principles.

This trait was clear for any countryman to see when it came to O’Neill leaving. He had presided over consistent top six finishes for Villa playing a counter attacking, percentage-based football with the addition of flair out wide.

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It was successful but reached a glass ceiling over the course of a complete season. Brendan Rodgers, shock horror another countryman, has just experienced the same scenario with Leicester. 

The O’Neill managerial blueprint was obvious to anyone who watched. It was run very much in an old-fashioned way. He saw a player and bought them no matter the cost of future wages.

This was all well and good if the player turned into a first team player like Ashley Young but equally was a financial black hole if they were Habib Beye.

Coming directly from Celtic where he was one of the two financial super-powers in Scotland, sound financial planning wasn’t what he was used to.

Like a luxury player who wouldn’t track back, Martin O’Neill was the definition of a luxury manager. Living for the here and now season by season, he had no desire to nurture players like Gary Cahill, Steven Davis, Marc Albrighton and countless more.

Under O’Neill if you weren’t ready for his first team squad, he wasn’t interested. It’s a short-sighted way to manage but it very much has its roots in the way traditional and amateur league football was in Northern Ireland. In fact, O’Neill himself just dropped everything when Nottingham Forest came in for him as a player. In hindsight a great decision, but there was no safety net. 

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The fact he was allowed to run newly rich Aston Villa like this however is a damning indictment of the Club at the time. He could have kept Steven Davis who was probably a year or so behind Petrov in terms of development, but he wanted his dressing room leader from Celtic.

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It was the same for Gary Cahill who went on to have much success after being let go for Zat Knight who was more physically developed at the time. O’Neill wanted instant players and when there was no pushback on this he kept going transfer window after window. He himself famously only signed one-year rolling deals and this should have been an indication of his short-term outlook.

We all know how it went over his tenure, the Moscow incident leading to the pivotal collapse against Stoke, the injustices at Wembley vs United and Chelsea and the loss of his favourite players to the established top sides.

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O’Neill in his mind, would have wanted to continue butting his head against this ceiling, using his stubborn nature to put his plucky Villa team against the rest but unfortunately, he was correctly asked to change his ways and use some of the talent that was coming through rather than buy his way out of holes in his squad. He wouldn’t be allowed to use the money from the sale of Milner to strengthen his squad.

The response was immediate, only he can tell us if it was premeditated, but knowing the nature of our small country I firmly believe it was impulsive and done without any disregard for anyone including himself. While he is rightly vilified for the transfer decisions he made and the money he wasted, the snap decision of him leaving was very much in our nation’s character and something that shouldn’t be attributed to any long-term revenge plan he had.

As my granny would have said he was thran as be damned a fitting summary of that fateful day and his career since leaving Aston Villa.


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