Villa not the only victims of O'Neill walkout
The timing was hellish for Aston Villa but then hardly as much as the wider implications. If Martin O'Neill couldn't hack it through the new Premier League realities, who could?
O'Neill, long valued for his intelligence, passion and a certain rough pragmatism, borrowed the worst of his great mentor Brian Clough's operating techniques when confronted with certain unwelcome facts. He walked away.
It hardly helped that the defection came in the wake of reports that the death wish of English football was moving along at an ever accelerating rate, with the report of Wayne Rooney walking into the early-morning street for an act of public urination and his World Cup squad-mate Peter Crouch, one of the game's more engaging figures, horrendously 'grassed up' following an encounter with a teenage prostitute in the small hours of a Madrid morning.
At a time when the priority of English football seemed to scream the need to embrace some understanding that these are the most testing, and potentially devastating, days since it first believed it had inherited much of the wealth of the world, O'Neill said, in effect, that he had no stomach for this new world -- or for the task of returning some of his players to a time when the concept of profit and loss was not some relic of a bygone age; one where, as never before, the accounts had to carry some kind of rationality, and clubs did not have to leap to attention at the first squeak of an agent.
O'Neill's Villa revolution, in truth, didn't really happen, at least not at a depth which at Celtic Park had made him look like the most upwardly mobile of any British-based football coach. Aston Villa were a strong, competitive team, but where was the surge of belief that had come to be associated with the feisty Ulsterman?
It was dissipated, certainly, in the bruising disentanglement of the club and their much-respected field leader Gareth Barry, one that left Villa exposed to the pressure of meeting ever-rising wage demands. Then, when James Milner -- another potential foundation stone of O'Neill's regime -- joined the belief in financially inspired defection, something inside plainly snapped.
For Villa's American owner Randy Lerner, it represents a sickening blow to his faith in a four-year investment that is cheese-paring when compared to the unfettered extravagance of Manchester City -- and a manager he had reason to believe was intellectually and morally capable of walking the line between solid progress and vertiginous debt.
After putting in £179m over four seasons, Lerner's reaction to the failure to qualify for the Champions League and the year's losses of £44m can hardly be seen as unreasonable.
Indeed, against the general perception that English football's need for financial sanity has reached a critical level, his suggestion that O'Neill should stand firmly against further escalation of the wage bill might have been seen as something of a formality. Instead, O'Neill saw it as a reason to end the affair.
It cannot be said to have been one of football's more rewarding love stories, for all the promise of the early days. Lerner's American ally and club director General Charles Krulak may have been quick to acknowledge O'Neill's quality as a football man, but then he was equally brisk in going to the heart of the issue which provoked the manager's departure so near to the big kick-off. Krulak's message was not so much a lament for the disappearance of the erstwhile messiah as a cool assessment of the imperatives facing almost every club and its manager.
First the tribute. "There is absolutely no question Martin did a good job for Villa and I have said that over and over," Krulak said. Then the one-issue cause of breakdown. "At the same time I can promise everyone that he knew and understood the long-term plans for the club and bought into them.
"He knew full well the need to bring wages in line with revenue -- the same as every Premier League club. He was absolutely supported by the owner during his time with the club. All one needs to do is look at the money spent.
"The reality is that the wage-to-revenue was not addressed and Martin was apparently unwilling to address it. He quit."
At the very least it was a gesture smeared with more than a hint of ingratitude. O'Neill may not have been received unlimited funds, perhaps not the king's ransom he may have imagined was coming his way when NFL owner and billionaire Lerner put his long-held ambition to own an English football club in his hands, but he was certainly given the means to develop a highly competitive team.
This was achieved to some degree but not in a way to augment the idea of O'Neill as a man of both extraordinary commitment and chemistry. The Villa revolution, quite simply, was too often disinclined to catch fire and, after last season's failure to break into the Champions League, O'Neill's performance faced scrutiny more intense than ever before.
The worry now is that if a man like O'Neill believes the fight against football's insidious inflation -- an overwhelming sense that too many of the game's leading players have had it too easy, too lucrative, for too long -- is lost, then the fires of resistance to such indulgence and waste are indeed burning low.
Lerner's appeal, after all, was not for some impossible austerity. He wasn't saying that Aston Villa was closed for ambitious business, but something quite different. Something that was about imposing an understanding that the days of ease, of ever-spiralling rewards, no longer stretched ahead so seamlessly.
That O'Neill, of all people, found the message unacceptable is maybe the most jarring of all the new realities. He was supposed to be a man of vision and leadership, a man who saw football for what it was and not what he might like it to be.
Now he has to live with a rather different kind of reputation. It is that he quit when the going got a little harder. Right or wrong, the blow is not just to Aston Villa but to the idea that football has the will to take hold of itself -- and a little common sense.