Friday 24 January 2020

O'Neill's wounded pride to drive Villa

oliver brown

WHEN Martin O'Neill seethes, he does so with familiar understatement -- quietly, and avoiding eye contact in a manner expressive of wounded pride.

Tomorrow's Carling Cup final against Manchester United encapsulates the resurgence he has engineered at Aston Villa so plainly that it seems churlish for anybody to question the scale of his accomplishment. Anybody, that is, except Arsene Wenger.

The Arsenal manager's uncharitable views about Villa's progress echo around the plush suites of their Bodymoor Heath training complex with a resonance to rival any pre-match address that O'Neill, with his baroque and sometimes baffling way with words, could contrive at Wembley.

Wenger, earlier this month, had just watched his team thwarted at Villa Park in the dourest of 0-0 draws when, ever the agent provocateur, he asked: "If you win the League Cup, can you honestly say you have won a trophy?

"We have got out of the group stages in the Champions League for 10 seasons in a row, that is three times more difficult than winning the League Cup five times. And finishing third in the league is more difficult than winning the League Cup."

O'Neill ought to record those words, step outside the main entrance at Bodymoor with a tin of red paint, and scrawl them in 10-foot-high letters on the wall, for all the rancour they have stirred in him and his men.

It is not so much the patronising tone of Wenger's argument, or its demeaning of Villa's fast-growing stature, as its rank hypocrisy.

Such a sage as O'Neill has not forgotten the moment in January 2006 when Wenger was so desperate to advance in this very competition that, for the second leg of a semi-final against Wigan, he selected Thierry Henry for the Frenchman's first Carling Cup appearance in six years. Dennis Bergkamp featured, too, to underline the intent.

While O'Neill contemplates this he pauses, tips his glasses, and then delivers a withering riposte.

"I know that the Arsenal manager has been pretty scathing all the time about the League Cup," he says. "I would have said that the team he played against Wigan was very, very strong. So when it suits, it's a great competition. And when it doesn't suit, it's not.


"If you had seen or experienced either of the two semi-final matches between Manchester United and Manchester City, if somebody had told those clubs that this trophy was not a trophy, then I think you would have been given short shrift."

Perhaps O'Neill's mind was drifting to his own peerless League Cup record, which defied credibility, given that his successes were all achieved at clubs now in the second tier of the game. It was apparently not sufficient that, as part of Brian Clough's all-conquering Nottingham Forest team, he laid his hands on the trophy twice and reached the final in one other year.

No, he would replicate precisely that return in another corner of England's east midlands, when, at the helm of an overachieving Leicester City, he reached the final three times in four years, winning two. "The League Cup has been really kind to me," O'Neill acknowledges."

O'Neill has attracted comparisons, not least from Burnley manager Owen Coyle, with his great mentor, Clough. The omnipotence upon which he insists at Villa, from shaping the team to every aspect of their preparations, assuredly echoes the tradition impressed upon him at the City Ground and sustained with such ruthlessness at Manchester United by Alex Ferguson, his adversary tomorrow.

This is United's third final in five years, a record which underlines the store Ferguson now sets by the competition. Having scrapped a plan to rest key personnel for the return with City, he faces a similar dilemma over whether to start with Edwin van der Sar and Wayne Rooney tomorrow.

Since the game may represent United's best chance of silverware, the probability is that both potential match-winners will play. For Villa, who have not lifted a trophy since winning this cup 14 years ago, the only selection quandaries are whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, incorporating Fabian Delph, and whether to retain John Carew at Emile Heskey's expense.

O'Neill said "The club has been starved of success and, considering it has a great history, contesting these type of games in February would be a sign that the club is making serious progress. It's so important. It gives you a boost of confidence, a platform to drive on. and a determination to go and succeed.

"When I say the club has a great, great history, certainly since 1982, and victory in the European Cup, you wouldn't say that's a phenomenal record. It's up to us to try to change that. That, to me, would be the biggest incentive of all." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Aston Villa v Manchester United,

Live, tomorrow, BBC1/Sky Sports1, 3.0

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