Villa look doomed to slide back after letting manager go
WHAT a waste. Over the past few years, everything seemed increasingly in place at Aston Villa: heavyweight manager, good fans, redeveloped ground, impressive training facilities, decent squad, improving form, Wembley appearances. And now this, a devastating setback.
By refusing to back Martin O'Neill more fully, Randy Lerner has foolishly lost the driving force behind the team's road back to recovery after the David O'Leary era.
What a waste. O'Neill had become frustrated over the club's failure to push on to the next level -- namely a more substantial push for Champions League football that would have required Lerner to strengthen the squad, not lose those youthful mainstays like James Milner to Manchester City and Ashley Young to Tottenham Hotspur.
What a waste. Villa now look doomed to slide back, to squander the chance given to them by the management of somebody of the calibre of O'Neill.
For all the names being linked with the vacancy -- men like Martin Jol, Alan Curbishley, Slaven Bilic and Sven-Goran Eriksson -- none is in the class of O'Neill, one of the best motivators at work in the game.
O'Neill made mistakes -- Nicky Shorey, Steve Sidwell and Emile Heskey spring to mind -- but Villa should feel deeply indebted to him and rue his decision to walk away.
To appreciate the impact O'Neill has on players, one need only look at Milner and Young, whose transfer values have doubled under his guidance. O'Neill makes good players better, developing elements of their game to make them more varied, more substantial performers.
After losing Gareth Barry to City, O'Neill simply worked on Milner and turned a player better known for his wing-play into a more central force. Milner responded with alacrity, becoming PFA Young Player of the Year and earning a place in England's starting XI at the World Cup finals.
O'Neill coaxed so many strong displays out of Young that he, too, was called up by Fabio Capello. Yet Young always felt inhibited at England training, flourishing only when returning to O'Neill's care.
If Capello becomes estranged from his players, and England make an unconvincing start to Euro 2012 qualifying, there will inevitably be calls for his replacing by O'Neill, the master man-manager.
He is one of life's inspiring characters, a fascinating, multi-faceted, quick-witted soul capable of debating anything from politics to the latest Bruce Springsteen album.
He's often difficult to read, such are his shifting moods and a propensity for rarely making direct eye contact. Such traits can keep players on their toes, although all are united by a desire to run through brick walls for him. Villa Park, Bodymoor Heath and the Premier League are all poorer places without O'Neill. He will be back. He's too good not to be employed again.