Under Martin O’Neill, I always saw Aston Villa as one of the good guys.
They were really good for the Premier League, one of the very few clubs that weren’t just challenging the Big Four (as it were back then), but doing so by playing attacking football, and without spending ridiculous fortunes.
Three consecutive sixth-place finishes in the Premier League are a testament to the good work O’Neill did, but even more importantly is the way he accomplished it, buying and putting his faith in young English players, encouraging them to play with a sense of adventure that few in the league had dared to at the time.
But thanks to yet more odd decision making from football club owners, O’Neill was allowed to leave the club.
Rumours has it that he resigned after being told he’d have to sell club jewels like James Milner before he could buy anyone else – even though it was O’Neill who had cleverly poached him from Newcastle United in a deal that ended up costing only around 4 million pounds.
With all that good work of developing players like Milner, Ashley Young, Gareth Barry and Gabriel Agbonlahor into world class players, he was told he’d have to let them go if he wanted to improve the squad further. It still doesn’t make sense.
It gets worse when you think that Villa decided to spend a record 24 million pounds on Darren Bent AFTER firing O’Neill.
And now, a whole bunch of players who had matured under O’Neill are reaching the peak of their careers with rival clubs – Barry and Milner at Manchester City, Young at Manchester United, Stewart Downing at Liverpool. Incidentally, they’re all England regulars now too, as was Emile Heskey, whose England renaissance came while he was playing for O’Neill.
It also seems only a matter of time that Gabriel Agbonlahor will join the list of ex-Villa players. The striker was below par last season under Gerard Houllier’s management (the rest of the team didn’t do very well either), but class is permanent – he will eventually earn a move to a bigger side, or at least a side going somewhere.
Villa used to be one of those bigger sides, and they’ve even gone backwards now by hiring Alex McLeish, who won’t be guiding Villa to consistent sixth-placed finishes any time soon. He was, after all, very much responsible for his previous club Birmingham City’s relegation.