Frustrated O'Neill warns Villa he may quit as doubts begin to gather pace
The 'Martin O'Neill quits Aston Villa' stories emerged 48 hours too early to be an April Fools' Day scam, but last night the Villa boss warned he could walk out on his 12-month rolling contract at the end of the season.
O'Neill reacted to criticisms following Villa's 7-1 Premier League capitulation against FA Cup semi-final opponents Chelsea and increasing rumours of a breakdown with Randy Lerner with a clear message that he will reserve the right to hand in his resignation when he performs a final audit of the current campaign with his American owner in the summer. "At the end of it all, I will sit down and talk to the chairman and we will see where we are positioned. If the Aston Villa fans are disgruntled with it, I will take it into consideration," O'Neill said.
O'Neill has arguably been the most popular manager in Villa's history. The Northern Irishman's name is still chanted incessantly by the Holte End, whose denizens have taken to him in the way they once revered Brian Little as a player.
But with that affection comes expectations. Villa are not a Birmingham City, delighted simply to be in the top half of the Premier League.
This is a club who have achieved what Arsenal have never done -- lift the European Cup.
To keep matters in perspective, it should be pointed out that O'Neill led Villa to Wembley in February for the first time since 2000, although they were beaten by Manchester United in the Carling Cup final. They are also still in contention for the FA Cup and face Chelsea, of all clubs, in the semi-final at Wembley a week on Saturday.
But fourth place in the league, and the prize of a potentially lucrative tilt at Champions League qualification, was Villa's principal target. Though they could yet snatch it from under the noses of Tottenham, Manchester City or Liverpool, it looks an increasingly forlorn task.
For the first time, fans are articulating the notion that perhaps O'Neill has taken Villa as far as he can or is likely to. While those who make that point tend to be branded disloyal, a raft of observations about his management style, which some might call complaints, have gained currency.
One concerns Villa's tendency to burn out in the second half of the season. They did it last March, which they entered with genuine prospects of squeezing Arsenal out of the top four, and results suggest something similar has occurred this time.
Which brings us to another of the dissenters' assertions, namely that O'Neill does not rotate his squad sufficiently. With a playing style in which relentless running is a key component -- some say his tactics are one-dimensional -- the theory goes that players are literally running out of energy by the time the run-in comes around.
O'Neill has appeared more sensitive to criticism of late, saying yesterday that "I must stand up for myself".
He points out the disparity between the club today n back in the upper echelons of the English game and on course for Europe again n and the dispirited under-achievers he and Lerner took over from David O'Leary and Doug Ellis in 2006.
Unlike O'Leary, though, he has had resources -- presiding over a net spend of nearly £90m on players -- but has still not delivered any silverware.