Martin O’Neill – Manchester United bound?

by Keith O'Connell

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

The Madness of Managers…

To embark on a career in football management there are two indispensable traits (aside from the obvious need for technical/tactical nous and man-management) that are required if the candidate is to have any chance of success or survival.

The first of these is an ultra thick skin with which to protect the fragile creature within from the onslaught of criticism from the fans, the media, his chairman and even from his own players.  The second of these vital traits is an unflinching propensity for madness.  Just like with goalkeepers, a particular level of insanity is a pre-requisite for even the most prepared and battle-hardened of novices starting out on this slippery slope.

If you look at the majority of managerial failures, you can almost always detect a trend of there being at least one of these traits missing.  Platt, Barnes, Southgate, Robson (Bryan), Ince, Coleman and the like all had been players with great ability and had the required amount of technical know-how, but possessed only a modicum of the two inescapable traits, albeit not enough to succeed at the highest level.  The likes of Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Andy Gray were smart enough to realise that whatever their own personal levels of madness, they were not enough to take the risk of dipping their toes into the managerial maelstrom.

There is however one who was born unto it and his name is Martin O’Neill.

It could be argued that he has an unfair advantage compared to the others as he learnt his trade as a player, and as a student of the game under the guidance of the late, great Brian Clough, El Loco Numero Uno himself.  He is the kind of manager whose personal characteristics seem to become imprinted and emblazoned upon his team.  Be it his infectious enthusiasm or will to win, each of his teams have had these qualities transferred onto them.  His madness has become apparent during his stints doing punditry on the BBC, always enlivening the debate, and who could question the iron will of a Catholic man playing football for Northern Ireland during the 70’s?  Thick skin and insanity personified.

It was in his early days as manager of Wycombe Wanderers that he first began to be noticed as a promising young manager, leading them to successive promotions with his favoured direct style of football allied to a high tempo and work rate, and a real physicality running through his team.

Next up was a very brief spell of about half a year with Norwich City.  His stay in East Anglia was truncated due to falling out with Chairman Robert Chase over the potential signing of Dean Windass.  Already this early in his career, Martin O’Neill was showing that he could not be bullied and that he was a man whose morals could and would not be compromised.

His next stepping stone to the big time was at Leicester City, a team than under O’Neill bore the same traits as Wycombe, but due to their larger budget there had a far higher level of quality running throughout the team.  The likes of Robbie Savage, Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet and Emile Heskey came to the nation’s attention under the tutelage of O’Neill and all went on to play regular international football for their respective countries.

Having won promotion, O’Neill established Leicester as a decent mid table to top half outfit, achieving an incredible four successive top ten finishes.  Punching well above their weight, Leicester would also win the Worthington (now Carling) Cup in 1997 and 2000 (and were runners up in 1999), qualifying for Europe twice as a result, before dropping down the leagues once again when O’Neill left for the Greener and Whiter pastures of Celtic.

Once again, only this time north of the border, O’Neill was to showcase his talent for buying quality players for a relatively small outlay, and moulding them into an on field representation of his ferocious personality.  Once again his squad were inspired and motivated to give the minimum 110% that was expected by this mercurial managerial wizard (not that Celtic need that much motivation to put one over on their hated rivals) and were top dogs for almost all of this 5 years in charge.  They even improved in Europe, losing heartbreakingly to Porto in the UEFA Cup final and consistently qualifying and performing heroically in the Champions League.  This was the most sustained level of European achievement from Celtic since the heyday of the Lisbon Lions.  Loved by the team’s fans and chairman alike once again, his loss was mourned gravely even though Gordon Strachan carried on successfully with the O’Neill momentum.  Nicknames given to him by his adoring Celtic faithful such as “St. Martin” and “the Blessed Martin”, proved very apt as he left his post in Scotland to care for his wife Geraldine, who had Lymphoma, proving himself once again an honourable, strong and reliable man, though this time in his personal life.

Now at Aston Villa, O’Neill is slowly imposing his blueprint on a team which now in his fourth year in charge is showing a much higher level of consistency than it had for a long time, improving their points tally season after season.  As ever there is a strong English presence, and a level of fitness and strength running through the side that would impress a Para-trooper.  Although favouring a direct approach, the team has no little ability to get it down on the deck and play.  With the likes of Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing and James Milner playing swift, skilful and incisive attacking football, they make a mockery of Arsene Wenger’s insistence that they are nothing more than a long ball team.  Mad Martin was not afraid to fight his corner over that one, and quite rightly so.

So what next for this whirling Northern Irish dervish?  His fear will be that he can only take Villa so far.  With a limited budget compared to the “Top” 4 and even that of the majority of those chasing, a fourth place finish would be a fantastic achievement.  Due to their success as a cup side, Villa are usually out on their feet towards the end of the season, and I believe that once again they will fall agonisingly short of the line.

Victory in this weekend’s Carling Cup final would be a magnificent achievement, and I know not of any neutral that won’t be firmly in the Claret and Blue corner shouting on Martin’s boys come Sunday afternoon (I know this makes them something less than neutral, but you get what I mean).

But will this level of success and expectation be enough to satiate the beast inside Martin O’Neill?  I, for one, think not.

We all know that England missed a trick in not approaching O’Neill to replace Sven but it is my own personal fear that Manchester United will not make the same mistake once Sir Alex Ferguson finally retires.  O’Neill fits the United mould perfectly, and his intelligent, likeable, and urbane character would go a long way to repairing many of the bridges His Lordship has burned with various institutions and media outlets.  The United boards lack of interference will certainly suit him, though having worked under, and tamed, the formerly “Deadly” Doug Ellis, I’m sure that Martin isn’t shy of standing and fighting his corner should the need arise.

All in all, you can be certain that wherever Martin with the Midas touch may end up, good times will surely come flooding in for his successful suitors.

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  • Mike Somerville

    Wouldn’t be a bad choice and could happen, but I do feel that Mourinho is number one on the shortlist for Utd.

  • Darren

    Only problem with Jose is he would think he’s bigger than the club! Where as O’Neil woul fit in nicely.

    I actually think Steve Mcclaren would b great for United, it would free up one of the top 4 places if he took over, which can only b a good thing of course.

  • Matt Quinn

    Dont think O’Neill is quite big enough for United. I have reservations about whether he could ever take Villa to the next step (ie. regular champions league qualifications)… his substitutions are fairly predictable and he doesnt always appear able to effect a match with tactical changes. He is a superb man motivator and likes his teams to play in a certain way, but i feel at United that wouldnt be enough.

    I love the guy as a Villa fan- but he does have flaws (certainly less than many managers) and i think Villa may be his level. His signings can also been a little uninspiring for fans although a lot have come good at Villa. That said, he has also spent a huge amount of money in recent seasons- and perhaps one (if being overly critical) could have expected a greater degree of variation in the Villa side. One thing Villa lack sometimes is a plan B (ie a creative midfielder/forward who can do the unexpected)… if he puts this right over the close season and manages to sign someone in this category then i may be forced to eat my words and hail him as the best thing since sliced bread. As it is he is just the best thing since bread.

  • Keith O’Connell

    Matt, I think you are trying to put United off of the hunt, and that you don’t want him to leave! Should Villa do the business on sunday, he is going to be right on United’s radar, make no mistake about it.

    As to his signings, I feel that more often than not they have been inspired, and there have been far more hits and misses. Downing aside, has he paid £10million or more for any other player? My hunch is that he hasn’t. He has to cut his cloth accordingly, as although Villa have money, it is more an Arsenal style budget (ie a realistic and sensible one) than a Utd/Chelsea/City/Spurs/Liverpool one.
    Can’t see Jose coming back to England, even with all his flirting and hints to the contrary. However, I would dearly love Schtevie Mac to take Unuted on a one way slide down the table. Now that would be beautiful!

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