For a team currently lying in 5th place in the English Premier League and vying for a top 4 finish that would put them among Europe’s Elite in the Champions League Aston Villa are facing a very few weeks. With rumours of O’Neill walking out on the club a few weeks ago and the threat of losing their newly crowned ‘PFA Young Player of the Year’ James Milner to Manchester United the club stand on the precipice; in one sense very much looking onwards and upwards but the flipside is falling back into mid table mediocrity.
Since taking over at the start of the 2006 season O’Neill has revived a sleeping giant of English football. The departing Doug Ellis had steered the club through the initial upheaval of the premier league but did not have the financial means to compete with the top sides in the league. The new owner Randy Lerner moved quickly to appoint the highly regarded Martin O’Neill after his very successful stint with Celtic. He was given the finances to change the appearance of the side and began to bring in young English talent aided with the academy players coming through.
His purchases have been sound and well thought through, mixing a blend of youth and experience in vital areas which has made the side hard to beat and extremely dangerous on the counter attack. Villa’s policy of buying young English players is something the national manager and fans should appreciate with so many foreign players occupying most of the starting positions in the top sides. They have reached one domestic final and were knocked out by Chelsea in the semi finals of the other. But for a terrible refereeing decision in the 5th minute of the game they could well have lifted their first major trophy since 1996.
The dilemma O’Neill faces this summer is whether he feels he can take Villa any further. With the emergence of Manchester City’s bottomless pit of money they have dropped further down the list of possible winners. They have had the last 2 winners of the ‘PFA Young Player of the Year’ award but how long can he hang onto these promising players before they leave for bigger and more successful clubs. In James Milner they have a player who thoroughly deserves his accolade of the best young player this season, he has scored 12 goals and contributed 12 assists from a more central position that he hasn’t operated in before. His dynamism has alerted Manchester United to the real possibility he could be the answer to the question every fan has asked for years – ‘who can possibly replace Paul Scholes?’ I don’t feel he is a like for like replacement but he does possess something United need and that’s a goal scoring contributor from the centre of midfield who is used to the rigours of the Premier League.
Should Villa lose one of their up and coming players the worry will be that O’Neill decides to walk away from the club he has turned around in the last 4 seasons. If he cannot hang onto his best players one has the feeling that he never will be able to continue to develop this team. They are short of a really creative forward who can link up with Agbonlahor, Carew, Downing, Milner and Young. Unless they can find that whilst holding onto the current squad members they will struggle to bridge the next gap. O’Neill has always been a very strong and independent man who will make quick judgements on where his future may lie. The big concern for all Villa fans is that if the bubble bursts this summer they may slip back into mediocrity which will be a massive shame for all football fans and especially the premier league.