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A Crucial Two Months for O'Neill

When he was appointed in 2006, over 1,000 fans turned up at Villa Park to greet his arrival. After the O’Leary years of gradual demise and fallings out with the crowd, new optimism surrounded Aston Villa as Martin O’Neill was named as the new manager, ending a 15-month hiatus from football. He took over a side that had just finished 16th in the Premiership, narrowly avoiding relegation, and has led them to serious Champions League contenders within 4 years. However, murmurs of discontent are beginning to be heard around Villa Park and the relationship between manager and fans is beginning to sour.

David O’Leary departed Villa Park by mutual consent following a row over player criticism of the chairman, Doug Ellis, and Martin O’Neill was appointed, shortly before the takeover of the club by American billionaire, Randy Lerner. The previous season, Villa had finished 16th and had a squad full of limited players. O’Neill was unable to bring in too many new faces in his transfer window, but spent almost £20m in the January transfer window, bringing in the likes of Ashley Young and John Carew at the expense of Milan Baros and Peter Whittingham. An 11th placed finish suggested progress. A further £15m was spent in the summer on the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker and Marlon Harewood led to an impressive 6th placed finish in the 2007/08 season and an Intertoto Cup place.

The summer of 2008 saw a large expenditure of over £30m on 8 new players, including Brad Friedal, James Milner and Carlos Cuellar. An excellent start to the season saw Villa being mentioned as possible title challengers in January. A small squad threatened to derail the season, but with reports suggesting there was money to spend to bring in new players to solidify the challenge, optimism was high around Villa Park. However, Emile Heskey was the only new face added to the squad – a decision met with significant disappointed amongst the fans – and despite a debut goal, injuries and a drop in form saw Villa collapse to a 6th placed finish. The decision to send a youth team to Moscow in the UEFA Cup to concentrate on the league backfired, and saw the beginning of the fall in relations between O’Neill and the fans.

The retirement of Martin Laursen and sale of Gareth Barry in the summer of 2009 left O’Neill with a big challenge to maintain the upward progress of his side, but having spent more than £40m over the summer, bringing 6 new faces to the club, suggested the ambition was still there. However, questionable selection decisions in the early part of the season saw an opening day home defeat to Wigan and the club crashing out of Europe in the qualifying round to Rapid Vienna. After the team was booed off against Wigan, he criticised the fans, leading to a backlash against the manager, although a good run of form placated them for a while. However, although there has been an underlying current of discontent around Villa Park for a while, there had been no open criticism or demonstrations of dissatisfaction against the manager until yesterday’s game against Wolves. Ironic jeering of his substitutions and booed off at full-time showed the opinions of a large section of the Villa Park crowd.

His critics argue that he is stuck in the past, mirroring a style of management that he learnt from the great Brian Clough, but which is simply not suited to the modern game. His use of substitutions has been questionable at times, and simply bizarre at others. His team selection has been open to debate – an insistence on playing players out of positions and a dislike for squad rotation has been pinpointed as weaknesses. And his responses to questions about the crowd reactions have hardly improved his relationship with them.

For the first two years of his Villa Park reign, there were no recognised right-backs in the squad, with Olof Mellberg, a centre-back, being regularly used to cover that position. Last season, he brought in Luke Young, who proved himself to be one of the top right-backs in the league and it appeared that position was sorted. The signing of Habib Beye in the summer added competition in that position and fans felt Villa had two good players. However, with only 18 appearances between them this season, Carlos Cuellar has been used as the first choice full-back. A natural centre-back, he copes well against teams with an aerial threat, but against traditional pacy wingers, he does not have the pace or knowledge of the position to cope, as seen against Wolves yesterday.

Whilst all managers have their favourites, O’Neill seems particularly stubborn in retaining those players, regardless of form. Combined with either a lack of imagination or strange supposed master-strokes when it comes to substitutes, this attitude has begun to irritate fans. The introduction of John Carew for Emile Heskey happens around the hour mark, regardless of the situation in the game, and Steve Sidwell has been introduced almost without fail week-in week-out. The £8m signing, Fabian Delph, has only made 3 starts, despite two man-of-the-match performances, and has only been brought on as a substitute 4 times. Youngster Nathan Delfouneso has only made three substitute appearances this season, despite a record of two goals in two starts in the cup this season and three goals in four starts last year. And despite players looking tired in recent games after a hectic schedule, O’Neill still seems reluctant to give any of the squad players an opportunity to shine.

Frustrations are running particularly high this season, since the fans believe that they have the ability to reach the Champions League, but realise that this could be their last major chance for a few years. If the likes of Manchester City or Tottenham snatch that place, they have the attraction and finances to bring in quality players that could push them to the next level. Following the Wolves game, he stated that “maybe they are not happy with a Carling Cup final appearance and FA Cup semi-final appearance and still battling for the Champions League with nine games left.” Obviously the fans are happy, although the advantage of some fairly easy draws (the highest placed team Villa have faced in the cup this year is Blackburn Rovers) has helped, but a team playing some fairly poor quality football and scraping a draw at home against Wolves is not what the fans expect following a net spend of over £100m in 4 years.

Whilst Villa fans do appreciate the job that Martin O’Neill has done at the club, there are a number questioning whether he has the ability to take the club to the next level. His seeming lack of a plan B has led to people debating his tactical knowledge and his inability to take any criticism has soured his relations with the fans, but he still retains the support of the owner. As he continues to emphasise, Villa are still in the hunt for the Champions League, so he will argue that he is doing a good job. However, whether 7th placed should be classed as success is open to debate – John Gregory never finished below 7th and was classed as a relative failure.

The rest of the season could be vital in determining the mood of the fans in the summer. O’Neill decided against spending any money on a striker in January, but if the club go on to secure 4th place, then the discontent is likely to subside. However, should the club finish in 7th, potentially missing out on Europe, then the tide of public opinion is likely to continue to shift. His repeated questioning of the fans has been a gamble, and if he is not able to achieve what he has stated, then he is likely to get little sympathy from a notoriously difficult-to-please set of supporters.

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