Sacred cows: Martin O’Neill

Posted by on Nov 26, 2012 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
Sacred cows: Martin O’Neill

A new series offering a different take on some of football’s most exalted reputations.

For the first time in his managerial career, Martin O’Neill appears under pressure. Next Monday marks the first anniversary of his appointment at Sunderland, amid much fanfare.

But the Black Cats sit a disappointing 16th in the Premier League, even after spending £22m on new players in the summer.

It can hardly be what Sunderland fans were hoping for – yet they should not be surprised at the team’s mediocre showing.

O’Neill’s reputation may still be glowing among the cosy punditry of mainstream football media.

However, close examination of his CV reveals more holes than in Sunderland’s defence — poor judgement in the transfer market, a narrow tactical focus, unattractive playing style, and ultimately, limited managerial success in English football.

The apprenticeship

As a player, the Northern Irishman had a central role in Brian Clough’s famous Nottingham Forest team, who won two European Cups and stuck to purist passing principles in doing so.

But when he moved into management, O’Neill forgot Old Big Ead’s famous maxim — that God would have put grass in the clouds if he wanted football played up there.

At Leicester City, O’Neill delivered the most successful period in the club’s history — but it was hardly the kind of football Cloughie would have enjoyed.

His Foxes were a direct team, in the style of Wimbledon a decade earlier. O’Neill employed a 3-5-2 featuring craggy centre halves like Steve Walsh and Spencer Prior, bite-your-legs midfielders in Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet, and old warhorse Steve Claridge up front.

Their finest hour came in a League Cup final replay at Hillsborough in April 1997, when his unfashionable team overcame the star-studded Middlesbrough of Ravanelli and Juninho. The winning goal, in extra time, perfectly illustrated the O’Neill philosophy; a free kick near half-way lumped into the penalty box, nodded across goal by Walsh, and hooked in by Claridge.

That, plus another League Cup win over lowly Tranmere three years later, remain the former Northern Ireland captain’s only English trophies as a manager — and in a competition severely weakened by top clubs fielding reserve teams.

O’Neill’s limited brand of football was fine in the hurly-burly of the Scottish Premier League, his next port-of-call. At Celtic, he won three out of five of the two-horse title races, and reached the final of another fading competition, the UEFA Cup. He quit the Bhoys due to his wife’s illness in 2005.

From hero to villain

His return to management was eagerly awaited by pundits and English clubs alike. He was by now a colourful addition to the studio sofa at major tournaments, which no doubt helped cement his relationship with the football media.

Eventually, he was successfully courted by Aston Villa, reinvigorated by new American owner Randy Lerner’s considerable bank balance.

On paper — or to a lazy summariser — O’Neill’s tenure at Villa Park looks decent: sixth place three times in the Premier League, and another league cup final.

And yet, as the excellent financial blog Swiss Ramble observes, that was the very least he should have achieved, given how generously — or foolishly — Lerner backed him in the transfer market.

O’Neill’s net spending on transfer fees totalled £84m from 2006 to 2010. From 2008, Villa’s outlay was more than Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham — all of whom achieved Lerner’s cherished goal of Champions League qualification. Villa did not.

Among the manager’s costlier buys whose careers made little further headway were: Curtis Davies (£9.5m), Nigel Reo-Coker (£8.5m), Marlon Harewood (£4m), and Zat Knight (£3.5m).

All were established players at Premier League level, and so all of them commanded high wages. And all of them are British — reflecting O’Neill’s narrow focus when scouting for new talent.

It’s also worth pointing out how well-served O’Neill was by Villa’s excellent youth policy — with players like Gabriel Agbonlahor coming through the ranks — yet still he wanted new signings.

The football was more expansive than at Filbert Street, as it should have been with such a costly squad. But the manager’s favourite tactic was still a variation on route one — long balls out of defence into the channels, exploiting the pace of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young. Villa fans were calling him tactically inflexible by the end.

When Lerner finally realised O’Neill’s limitations, a club once run so prudently by ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis had dived heavily into the red. Aston Villa’s latest financials, for 2010/2011, show a £54 million loss.

Randy’s readies dried up.

The legend lives on — or does it?

With no chequebook to back him, O’Neill walked out of Villa Park in summer 2010 — just five days before the new season.

Predictably, his supporters in the press ignored the Ulsterman’s profligacy in the transfer market, and blamed the board for not backing him. Astonishingly, during this period his name was regularly linked to the two most glamorous jobs in the English game: Manchester United and England.

So Sunderland probably saw O’Neill’s appointment as a coup.

A year on, and it looks anything but.

There have been some familiar failings. Expensive British signings have arrived and underperformed — Steven Fletcher (£12m) and Adam Johnson (£10m).

So far, excuses have included blaming the referee, his own players, and — the stock manager plea — that he needs more time.

One of O’Neill’s trademarks as a manager has been his ‘animated’ behaviour in the technical area. Fans like this ‘show of commitment’. Yet during Saturday’s 2-4 defeat against West Bromwich Albion, his antics looked faintly ridiculous in contrast to the calmness of opposite number Steve Clarke, whose team are travelling in the opposite direction to O’Neill’s.

After the game, rumours circulated that the Sunderland manager had resigned, which were swiftly rebutted.

Yet, as was the case at Villa, it may be that falling on his sword is the only way Martin O’Neill can salvage anything from his overinflated reputation.

Frank Heaven


  1. Ben
    November 27, 2012

    While the financial facts and figures and your observation about O’Neill’s narrow focus on British players are eye-opening, I’m afraid I don’t buy this – much as it pains me to say it, as a Newcastle fan…

    Villa-supporting friends of mine were desperate to see the back of O’Neill, seemingly oblivious to the fact that steering them to sixth three seasons in a row was a major achievement. OK, so he spent more than the top sides, but he had a significantly inferior squad than them to start with – so they had the advantage in the race for the Champions League spots. After O’Neill walked out, Ged Houllier and Alex McLeish were textbook examples of being careful for what you wish for. How many Villa fans would cite their reigns as constituting progress?

    There’s no denying that the Mackems are currently in a major rut, but – as with Newcastle – I’d attribute that largely to injuries and loss of form. McLean and Sessegnon, both brilliant last year, have been very poor. I’d take issue with your comments about their summer signings too. £22m for Fletcher and Johnson wasn’t cheap, admittedly, but surely you can’t argue that the one man to have scored on a regular basis for them has been a flop? Without Fletcher’s goals they’d be deep in relegation trouble. Johnson, for his part, has definitely underperformed, but I’d maintain that he will turn out to be a good signing and someone I wish we’d tempted to our little corner of the north-east instead.

  2. mehaul
    November 27, 2012

    £68mil for the sale of Barry, Young and Milner was not a bad return for Villa’s initial outlay.
    Anyone with half a brain can see the slump at Sunderland is down to under performing creative players in the team. Although to include Fletcher in this article is a joke, the lad has scored 6 goals from 10 chances.
    Good luck to Villa though I expect you to be relegated this season but I guess you’ll blame MON for that as well.

  3. James
    November 27, 2012

    A somewhat one-sided argument I feel.

    You completely overlooked O’Neill’s successful tenure at Wycombe. Ok so it’s not top-flight, but this site is not usually so blinkered.

    Regarding his time at Villa:- Yes he spent a lot, but how many players did Villa sell over that period? And, while his achievements with Villa were modest, the club has certainly struggled since he left.

    Also, the comment on his style of play at Villa is rather unfair. When a club/manager is fashionable then this style of play is called “classic counter-attacking football with incisive 40-yard balls into the feet of wingers breaking at pace” . When they’re not then it’s “boring agricultural hoofball”.
    Very few sides have played genuine route-one football in the top-flight in the last decade. Villa certainly weren’t one of them.

  4. Daniel
    November 27, 2012

    First of all, I think it’s great that you’re writing a series of controversial articles. I enjoy reading things I disagree with. It makes life more interesting. Having said that, I’d like to take issue with the way you glossed over his successes at Wycombe and Norwich, but mainly with the brief dismissal of what he achieved at Leicester. He took a yo-yo team in the mid table of Division One into the Premiership and finished in the top 10. He kept them in the top half for 4 consecutive seasons, achieving a high of 8th. Along with this, and with not spending much money (His and not a particularly deep squad, he delivered 2 league cups, the first silverware for the club in decades, bringing European football to Filbert Street. Middlesbrough had spent shedloads of money and had superior players, yet were eventually overcome in the ’97 final. Tranmere being the opposition in the 2000 final is irrelevant. In a cup competition, the 2 unbeaten teams meet in the final. How does beating lower division opponents diminish the achievement of winning a trophy? If you want to underline his achievements, just look at what’s happened to Leicester since he left. True, Prior and Walsh (both at the club before O’Neill arrived) were not cultured footballers. But how many centre backs could be described as skilful on the ball now, let alone in the late 90s? Being “craggy” is, and was, part of the job description. Neil Lennon was certainly the midfield enforcer, but again, wasn’t it the norm to have one of these? I don’t often hear criticism of Alex Ferguson (please do him later in the series) using Roy Keane in this role. And Muzzy Izzet was the creative force in that midfielder, not another enforcer. I agree that his record since leaving (including the move to Celtic which showed a lack of ambition – he could’ve got a bigger job in the Premiership) is questionable at best. Finally, as the best-written blog which focuses mainly on the lower leagues, shouldn’t you be lauding the achievements of overperforming smaller clubs, rather then belittling them? Not everyone can afford to be Barcelona, and they shouldn’t be ridiculed when they find another way to succeed than the fashionable ‘tiki-taka’ style.

  5. Lanterne Rouge
    November 28, 2012

    A great debate. I’d acknowledge O’Neill’s achievements (especially at Leicester) but enjoyed the critique because I’ve alays found him to be a little too intent on his CV than which ever club he is at. A pal of mine were awarded medals for winning a youth competition by O’Neill in his Wycombe days and said he simply didn’t show any interest – brusquely handing out the gongs before hopping back in his car. One also suspects he left Villa before decline might wreak havoc on his reputation – not unwisely given how many other previously rated managers have stayed too long at various clubs.

  6. Five things we like this month – November - Seat Pitch
    November 30, 2012

    […] 4. Sacred cows: Martin O’Neill “A new series offering a different take on some of football’s most exalted reputations.” […]

  7. James Kicked Upstairs
    November 30, 2012

    Firstly, I really enjoyed this article, well written and offering some perspectives that certainly get glossed over in the mainstream media. I’d tend to agree with some of the comments, though, especially those from Andy. I think a wider problem when judging managers is the speed that we jump to conclusions. One season/year is too small a sample size to judge a good manager I think (or it should be, I can fully understand managers going for short-term rather than long-term policies given that they’re so likely to get sacked after a bad run). I’d like to see what he can do with Sunderland with three years when he’s had a chance to build his own team and implement his values/tactical philosophies etc.

    Very good point about transfer policy at Aston Villa of buying proven PL players at a premium. Can’t help but think he missed a golden opportunity to get some genuine quality from abroad at much better value for money if he had just been a bit more creative in terms of approach to scouting (a bit like Liverpool’s missed opportunity in January and summer of 2011).

  8. Kerry Andrew
    August 1, 2013

    Dude, I second James. How could you completely overlook Martin’s utterly successful role at Wycombe? Bit weird not to mention it, given that we won trophies and went up two flights in two years. HARRUMPH.


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