Words by Regan Foy (@FindFoy)
On this day, eleven years ago, Martin O’Neill took the reigns of Aston Villa Football Club. This was his first role since leaving Celtic just over a year before to care for his wife Geraldine. His opening statement, “It’s absolutely fantastic to be back and with a club such as this. This is a fantastic challenge. I am well aware of the history of this football club. Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream” probably still resounds with fans that are old enough to remember.
For some younger fans, these are the days that perhaps offer the fondest memories of Aston Villa; where the first eleven contained the likes of Gareth Barry, Ashley Young, Gary Cahill and a much more proficient Gabriel Agbonlahor. Whilst three of these players were bred in the Villa academy at some point in their youth careers, only one still remains at the club. Steve Bruce made a passing comment that irks back to these days at a press conference within his first season at the club, mentioning something close to “the club has a horrible habit of letting its best players go and this needs to change”.
O’Neill’s first season in charge came with a few surprises, with Villa not losing a single game until the 28th of October, and then replicating the exact same nine-game unbeaten run at the end of the season to pick up after a slump. Aston Villa finished 11th, five places higher than the 16th they’d managed the season before. At the end of this season, O’Neill was linked with the vacant England job. Randy Lerner, then owner of Aston Villa said openly that he “would not stand in the way of O’Neill if he wanted to leave”, which is a warning sign of what kind of owner Lerner would later be revealed to be. With your club improving their finishing position in the league and enjoying such good form in the season, why would you openly admit that you couldn’t care less if the manager left?
The following season (2007-08) was one where Villa had started to place fear in their opposition’s hearts before games, possibly for the first time in a while. The season saw Aston Villa narrowly miss out on UEFA League Qualification, finishing in 6th, qualifying for the Intertoto Cup instead. The side scored their highest goal amount – at 71 – since winning the league in 1981, and gained their highest point tally since the 1997-98 season.
In 2010, after relative success as manager of Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill resigned after reportedly being unhappy at the funds available for transfers.
Looking back at our managers since 2002, Martin O’Neill has the highest win percentage of any of our last ten managers at 42.11%, with Steve Bruce just behind him at 41.67%.
The question that needs to be asked, is that if Dr. Tony Xia owned Aston Villa during the O’Neill era with the same amount of wealth he currently has today, how would the side have faired? Would O’Neill have stayed longer without Lerner’s vice-grip on money?
Generally, Steve Bruce should be considered both statistically and otherwise to be our best manager since O’Neill, and if he manages to achieve promotion this season, he will more than likely be held in a higher regard than the now current Republic of Ireland manager, but it’s interesting to theorise what may have happened if things were a little different.