Next summer, while Martin O’Neill takes Ireland to Euro 2016, one of his former teams could be licking their wounds over a first relegation in almost 30 years.
If Aston Villa do drop into the Championship, it’d seem an inevitable conclusion to five years of dour football, desperate mismanagement at every level and a lack of ambition unbecoming of one of English football’s most successful clubs. To partly blame O’Neill, who led Villa to three successive top six finishes, would seem perverse. But you can certainly trace the club’s current malaise back to his reign.
O’Neill arrived in the summer of 2006, as American Randy Lerner was buying the club from Doug Ellis. Th e appointment was Ellis’ parting gift to a club he had served for decades, though Villa fans had grown tired of his penny-pinching in his final years. With the terrace unrest no doubt firmly in his mind, Lerner gave O’Neill considerable backing, with more than £120m spent on players during his four years in charge.
A number of these signings were successful. Ashley Young, James Milner, Stewart Downing and Fabian Delph were all eventually sold for a decent profit, while James Collins, Richard Dunne and Stiliyan Petrov put in displays befitting their transfer fees. But allowing O’Neill carte blanche was to be Lerner’s first and biggest mistake.
Trusting the manager implicitly, he gave the Ulsterman blank cheques, leading to some eye-watering figures splashed out on fairly run-of-the-mill players. Eight million pounds on Curtis Davies, £7.8m getting Carlos Cuellar, £5m on Steve Sidwell, £6m on Luke Young, £2.5m on Habib Beye (no, me neither) and £7m on Stephen Warnock. Why am I telling you all this? Because, if you remember, West Ham benefited from this largesse to the tune of £12.5m, for the services of Nigel Reo-Coker and Marlon Harewood in 2007.
Neither were particularly bizarre signings at the time. Both had been part of the Hammers side which got to the FA Cup final 12 months previously, and there had even been talk of Harewood going to the 2006 World Cup. Although the following season was a pretty miserable one at Upton Park, both still had a decent reputation and miles left in the tank when they moved to Villa – albeit, in Reo-Coker’s case, in acrimonious circumstances.
Neither player will go down in Villa folklore, though one was considerably more successful than the other. Reo-Coker saw out every minute of the fouryear deal he agreed upon signing, occasionally captaining the team and making 123 appearances – though by the end, he was earning his ‘Nigel Mediocre’ tag.
Harewood played only 40 times, the vast majority as substitute, scoring seven goals. This equates to £100,000 in transfer fee for each appearance. Though both eventually left for nothing, paying £8.5m for Reo-Coker and £4m for Harewood was nothing out of the ordinary at Villa Park at that time, as the earlier figures show.
O’Neill was operating a risky “jam today” approach, ignoring little things like a player’s relative worth or sell-on value, and simply spending whatever it took to secure the players he wanted, in the hope of securing Champions League qualification. To be fair, it came close to paying off. It’s hard to believe now, but in April 2010 Villa were level on points with fourth-placed Spurs with just two games to play.
Maddeningly, defeats to Manchester City and Blackburn allowed Spurs to keep hold of fourth and as a result launch Gareth Bale into the European stratosphere. It could so easily have been Ashley Young at Real Madrid – or maybe not! On the eve of the following season, O’Neill walked out. He had known for a little while Lerner would no longer sanction the sort of money he wanted to spend.
Under Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish, signings were funded by the sales of Milner, Young and Downing while Paul Lambert’s remit was to slash the wage budget and completely rebuild the squad on a transfer pot of roughly £20m per season, half of what O’Neill spent.
The inevitable decline brings the club to where it is now – yet another desperate battle to stay up. It may be a little far-fetched to suggest signing Reo-Coker and Harewood was the beginning of the end. After all, they were a (small) part of Villa’s most successful spell of the 21st century. But thanks to O’Neill, it came at a cost – potentially the club’s Premier League status. I hope he remembers that when he leads the Republic out in France.