In need of respect
After speculation over his future, Martin O’Neill has a chance today to prove he belongs among the elite
THIS afternoon, Martin O'Neill enters another big cup occasion as the plucky underdog, the darling of the neutral. A tag with which he is familiar but, it seems, no longer comfortable.
It's been a strange couple of weeks for the Derry native. For the second season in succession, his side's attempts to make it to the Champions League have unravelled just as the main contenders enter the home straight.
Speculation persisted that James Milner, angling for a new contract, could be lost to Manchester United. And then came the 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Chelsea, which prompted an internet rumour, which quickly gathered legs and entered punting circles, which suggested that O'Neill had walked away from his post, frustrated with the lack of financial clout provided by owner Randy Lerner.
The endgame scenario was untrue but, amid a series of media appearances in the aftermath of the mini-drama, O'Neill left the impression that, while there was no fire, there was certainly some smoke. In one sit-down he spoke of his need to finally recognise his own value, stating that like a "typical Irishman" he sometimes made the mistake of downplaying his worth, leaning towards self-deprecation.
Eleven years ago, during the peak of his tenure at Leicester City, O'Neill addressed murmurs linking him with the position of England manager, then filled by Glenn Hoddle. "I'm told my name was being bandied about in FA corridors and not for having a go at some referee, which was very nice," he said, before adding, "I'm sure if they ran out of every other candidate and asked me, I'd give it some consideration."
Therein lies the self-deprecation. Then, he was speaking about an upcoming League Cup final. Now, he re-enters the spotlight on an FA Cup weekend, a potential step up from his achievements at Leicester, where he enjoyed Wembley delight on two occasions in what was then known as the Worthington Cup.
It would be a considerable achievement, of course, if Villa were to topple Chelsea today, gaining a modicum of revenge for the league humbling at Stamford Bridge. Alas, you sense that O'Neill has become enervated by life as an also-ran, periodically able to compete with the big boys yet unable to sustain that effort over the course of the season. The question now is if the big job that he has long been tipped for -- you can find him close to the top of the betting in any significant 'Next Manager' market -- will ever actually come his way.
Critics of O'Neill argue that his abilities are consistently over-rated by his friends in the press room. From his days as a pundit on BBC, that even extended to admonishing Robbie Williams in a bizarre aspect of their France 98 coverage, the ex-Nottingham Forest player has created a quirkily engaging public profile.
Interviews with O'Neill are peppered with anecdotes that depict him as a rounded individual. On one hand we have the intelligence away from the park and his fascination with criminology. On the other hand, there are nuggets which highlight his dedication to his job with tales of O'Neill on the training ground with a stopwatch and a whistle leading his players through sprinting drills and that kind of thing.
Oh, and then there's the fact that he doesn't employ an agent, hinting at an old-fashioned approach at odds with much of the greed and bluster that accompanies the modern game.
There's a school of thought which argues that his popularity means he is absolved from scrutiny in times of crisis. In the wake of the Chelsea thrashing, he avoided the criticism that many of his contemporaries would have endured.
However, it would be ridiculous to denigrate the quality of his work at Aston Villa. In 2006, he inherited a side which finished 16th in their last campaign under David O'Leary and has gradually shaped them into contenders at the right half of the table, even if they ultimately lack the riches to become a top-four side.
Sure, he has made some poor acquisitions during his four years in charge, with Steve Sidwell (£5m), Nigel Reo-Coker (£7.5m) and Marlon Harewood -- the last described as "fantastic value" when £4m was shelled out -- the main sticks used to beat the manager with when his transfer policy is discussed.
Still, the pros outweigh the cons. Last summer, he paid a combined £10m for Richard Dunne and James Collins and also picked up Stephen Warnock to remodel his back four. Placed alongside the £22m that
Manchester City paid for Joleon Lescott, it was good business and a useful deployment of the £12m earned by the sale of Gareth Barry to Eastlands.
Stiliyan Petrov (£6.5m), Ashley Young (£9.65m) and Milner (£12m) are other successful acquisitions from his four years at the helm, while the jury is out on Stewart Downing (£12m). John Carew was picked up in a swap deal with Lyon for Milan Baros, with the latter lasting only a year with the French club.
That proved an inspired deal, delivering the archetypal 'big man' which has featured in O'Neill's sides going right back to his Wycombe days. Nevertheless, his tactics have evolved and Carew is often introduced as an impact sub rather than shouldering the responsibility.
They are arguably a better side away from home, with a counter-attacking style that is quite direct, bringing the speed of Young and the improving Gabriel Agbonlahor into play. Unfairly, they were described as a "long-ball team" by Arsene Wenger in January.
"Ashley Young didn't have time to play long balls when he was taking that left-back (Gael Clichy) to the cleaners," retorted O'Neill, bristling at any implied suggestion that he is another manager schooled in the British game who lacks tactical nous.
Richard Dunne delivered a more measured analysis. "We've got pace in our team up front and that's how you use it," he observed. "They're not just long kicks. They're placed balls we know our centre-forwards can get on the end of because they can outpace most defenders in the league."
Whatever about the style, there is substance to O'Neill's methodology. He took Leicester to a new level, got Celtic back into a league-winning habit and has revitalised Aston Villa. Along the way, he has identified players at a lower level with the potential to progress.
Characters like Steve Guppy, Neil Lennon and Petrov have followed him around at various intervals and justified his faith in their ability. He nurtured a young Emile Heskey, and managed to get inside the head of Stan Collymore for a short time and reaped the rewards.
Certainly, his motivational skills when it comes to difficult characters provide a contrast with Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, whose detachment from his players is legendary.
But that's just one aspect of leading a big club and while O'Neill may have the charm and the profile, he is in conflict with the notion that he is at home turning youngsters and misfits into a sporadic force, rather than being a man with the sophistication to operate in the elite level consistently.
After turning 58 in March, he is running out of time to escape the pigeon hole.
Aston Villa v Chelsea,
Live, UTV, Setanta Irl, 5.0