O'Neill at a crossroads

Villa need to last the pace this season

August 13, 2009
By Phil Shaw

Martin O'Neill's popularity among Aston Villa fans shows no sign of waning as he enters his fourth season as manager. But will the goodwill that was so conspicuously withdrawn from his predecessor, David O'Leary, begin to diminish if Villa were to go another year without challenging for honours?

Peace Cup 2009
GettyImagesThe winning of the Peace Cup has given Villa fans cause for optimism

Along with Randy Lerner, the American entrepreneur whose buy-out ended the water-treading Doug Ellis era, O'Neill remains the most potent symbol of Villa's attempt to live up to their vaunted potential and rich heritage. Supporters identify with his passion: even in pre-season, goals were celebrated with a leap worthy of Monty Panesar after bagging a wicket, while one time-wasting Mexican player found the ball thrust angrily into his chest, resulting in the Northern Irishman's banishment to the stand.

Villa went on to win the ironically named Peace Cup, overcoming Juventus, no less, in the final, and also beat Porto and Fiorentina as they built towards the start of the Premier League campaign. But it is on their performances in competitive action over the whole season, starting with Saturday's opener at home to Wigan Athletic, that O'Neill knows Villa will be judged.

They finished sixth last spring, 10 points adrift of the Champions League place which had looked eminently possible during the winter. Since then, of course, Manchester City have begun throwing money at the transfer market with almost reckless abandon, prising Gareth Barry from Villa and, it would seem, moving ahead of Villa as contenders for a top-four spot.

Lerner is a wealthy man, but his resources are finite, and O'Neill's spending, like that all of Mark Hughes' managerial rivals, has been modest by comparison. Stewart Downing, the England winger, arrived from Middlesbrough for £12m but will not play until late this year because of injury; a £6m fee, possibly rising to £8m, secured Fabian Delph's midfield promise from Leeds; and Newcastle's Habib Beye, from under the noses of Hull, will bolster Villa's defensive options.

Zat Knight followed Barry out, the high-rise centre-back joining Bolton for £3m. Yet while O'Neill continues to be linked with players - among them Jermaine Jenas, Tuncay Sanli, Robert Huth, Stephen Warnock, Sylvain Distin, Miguel Veloso and, intriguingly, Real Madrid's Wesley Sneijder - it appears that Villa will be relying on largely familiar faces in the months ahead.

Given that O'Neill has often bemoaned the lack of numbers available to him - coincidentally echoing O'Leary's mantra under Ellis - the relative dearth of incoming players is somewhat surprising. He believes that the injury which ended the career of his captain, Martin Laursen, was a key factor in Villa's near-collapse in the final third of 2008-09.

More dispassionate observers point to the burn-out evident in the form of Gabriel Agbonlahor and, to a lesser extent, Ashley Young. Mental and physical fatigue was unsurprising in a team whose style was predicated on relentless running power. Villa simply didn't have the personnel to cover for such contingencies and are not obviously equipped to cope better this season - especially if they make inroads into the Europa League, in which they meet Rapid Vienna in a two-leg qualifying tie.

Fabian Delph
GettyImagesFabian Delph: Young signing has the game to succeed at Villa

One area of possible weakness, despite the clean sheets against Juve and Fiorentina, is likely to Laursen's old stamping ground; the only specialist centre-backs available to O'Neill of proven Premier League quality are Curtis Davies and Carlos Cuellar.

In midfield, Barry's defection will place a heavy responsibility on the left-sided Delph. His all-round game, incorporating a vice-like tackle, quick feet, an impressive passing range and the ability to score spectacular goals, stood out amid the hurly-burly of League One and could make him the bargain of the summer, although he is only 19 years old and slightly built.

Indeed, in the absence of any Eastlands-style spree, Villa will be looking to youth to provide squad depth this season. Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannon, Ciaran Clark and an American, Eric Lichaj, are all likely to be thrust into the front line as the fixtures come thick and fast.

The credibility of the O'Neill-Lerner axis remains high because, after so many years of under-achieving under Ellis' cautious stewardship, it holds out the hope of the 1982 European Cup winners restocking their trophy cabinet and re-establishing themselves as a force at home and abroad.

The Peace Cup triumph hinted at bigger and better things to come, and O'Neill's manic touchline exhortations demonstrate that his commitment is as fierce as ever. Sooner or later, though, Villa's vast, re-energised fan base may be asking whether the upheavals of 2006 have put the Claret and Blue back among the elite or merely restored them to a place among the best of the rest.