Well, this is a novel experience: the manager of Aston Villa is somebody I greatly admire and respect. It’s not that I’ve particularly disliked Villa’s managers in recent years, except O’Leary when the club started to struggle, but they haven’t exactly been of the highest calibre (except perhaps Ron Atkinson, who should be given his due for the success he brought to the club, in spite of his subsequent efforts to earn himself the public image of an addled racist).
Yet Martin O’Neill would have been one of my top choices for the job – I lived in Buckinghamshire in my teens and he was a local hero for his work at Wycombe Wanderers, and aside from a short and rather poor spell at Norwich City he’s brought success wherever he’s gone (and at three very different clubs). Seeing him perform punditry duties at the World Cup reminded me of how astute and likeable he is. In fact, I rate him so highly that I didn’t think Villa stood much chance of landing him. He was, to my mind, the obvious candidate for the England job once Scolari had turned it down, but the FA’s twattery in appointing Steve ‘I’ve got the credentials’ McClaren instead has turned out to be Villa’s gain.
Judging from O’Neill’s lack of interest in the three north-east jobs that have become vacant this summer, Villa have partly benefited from geography. Reports suggest that he didn’t want to move or commute too far, allowing him to continue to support his wife, and Birmingham is within easy driving distance of Wycombe. Although O’Neill’s choice may have been dictated by convenience rather than any great love for Villa, few fans will complain. At a club where pessimism has become the default position, it was remarkable to see fans rushing to the ground yesterday as if they’d been told that the first twenty people through the gates would win a year’s supply of balti pies and the chance to give Juan Pablo Angel a slap.
Let’s not forget that Villa have been tipped for relegation, and this newfound enthusiasm could go down the pan very quickly and take O’Neill’s reputation with it if the results don’t start coming in. Until there’s some movement on the ownership of the club, O’Neill will be working under the same restrictions that have frustrated his predecessors. Doug Ellis has promised ‘some funds’, but in the past ‘some funds’ has meant ‘a couple of million for some journeymen from Sunderland’. O’Neill has made no promises other than to try his best. This is probably wise. If nothing else, though, Villa fans can look forward to no longer wanting to throw things at the TV as their manager bullshits his way through another post-match interview.