Sunderland's Martin O'Neill returns to Aston Villa this weekend, and though he left under a cloud, I'd take him back over Alex McLeish every day of the week.
It’s a tale of two managers at Villa Park this weekend as long-time rivals Alex McLeish and Martin O’Neill come face-to-face for the first time since their spirited Second City derby days.
Now, a couple of years on, McLeish has made the seemingly implausible move across the city to manage Aston Villa, while O’Neill returns as the messiah-turned-Judas who could rub further salt in the wounds of the claret and blue faithful he turned his back on by sending their beloved club closer to the precipice of relegation.
Whilst they may have been rivals in club terms, first as opposing managers at the Old Firm before renewing rivalries south of the border in Birmingham, both McLeish and O’Neill have always seemingly demonstrated a mutual respect for each other. That said, O’Neill bested his Rangers rival on the majority of occasions in Glasgow, including beating them an embarassing seven times in a row. That record showed few signs of improving for McLeish as Birmingham City manager, who failed to pick up a single point against O’Neill’s Villa, suffering a devastating 5-1 defeat at Villa Park on one occasion, before going on to explain that “Villa have a different agenda to us, you have to say they’re a better team.” But that’s McLeish all over – why take responsibility when there’s a ready-made excuse to roll out?
It’s a trend he seems to have continued, pointing the finger for individual mistakes at his young players and recently telling Villa fans who watched their side capitulate to a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal that they needed to be more “realistic” if they expected to be able to go to the Emirates and win. It seems fellow strugglers Wigan dared to have the same unrealistic expectations when they recently went to the same stadium – and won. Nor did it bother them that they were playing Manchester United – and won. McLeish, on the other hand, was “proud” of his players who only suffered a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the champions last week.
That’s McLeish all over – why take responsibility when there’s a ready-made excuse to roll out?
Of course, few Villa fans would “expect” a team made up largely of Academy graduates to go to the top sides and win every time, but the least they would expect was to turn up and give themselves a chance. Play with a bit of self-belief, some sense of adventure, try to make something happen. Villa registered just two shots on target at the Emirates. Yes, McLeish has injury problems – and of course the devastating news of captain Stiliyan Petrov being diagnosed with acute leukemia – but then injury problems haven’t been a factor all season. Darren Bent is getting almost as many chances in front of goal now that he’s injured as he did when he was actually playing.
But McLeish and outside onlookers seem convinced that his woes are only owing to his Birmingham City connections. He insists his reputation of being a defensive manager is a myth, claiming he doesn’t tell his players not to attack (but falling short of saying that he does actually tell them to attack) and pointing to his proven record as a manager in Scotland (a record which included leading Rangers to a virtually unheard of third position in the league).
Speaking of tomorrow’s visit of O’Neill’s Sunderland, McLeish told the Birmingham Mail: “Martin has come in there and he has god-like status already – that’s something I am going to have to earn here.”
Darren Bent is getting almost as many chances in front of goal now that he’s injured as he did when he was actually playing.
Hard done by isn’t he? Who’d have thought he would have to go into a job and earn admiration by actually being successful at his job? He’s not a unlikeable man. He seems a pretty straight-up guy, if a little misguided, but he’s clearly well liked within football and by the media. Even as Blues manager he never really became a figure of hate for Villa fans, not like Trevor ‘Clown’ Francis or Steve ‘Potato Head’ Bruce were. But while he was never going to be welcomed with open arms as an ex-Blues manager, that was not the prime reason for the objection to his appointment. And any manager would have to do more to earn “god-like status” at his club than leading them to 15th in the league.
One quick glance at last season’s league table should be enough to tell you it was a bad choice of manager. Villa’s board insisted on bringing in a manager with Premier League experience, immediately ruling out a host of worthy candidates from abroad or exciting managerial talent from the lower leagues. Never mind that McLeish’s Premier League experience amounted to two relegations in three seasons, including last year’s pathetic slide out of the league which saw Birmingham City average less than a goal a game.
That would be enough to put off supporters of any club, let alone Villa fans. Had Villa appointed Avram Grant after he relegated West Ham, the outcry would have been just as loud.
But the Blues connection has given him and all the pro-McLeish brigade throughout the footballing world something with which they can leap to his defence. ‘Villa fans will never accept him because of where he came from,’ and so on and so forth. Even Graham Taylor, the man known as ‘Sir Graham’ to most Villa fans, has seemingly jumped on that bandwagon this week.
Never mind the fact that McLeish’s Villa play the most insipid brand of thoughtless, tactically devoid and uninspiring football seen in years. Never mind the fact that he’s led us to just four home wins all season and just 35 goals in 33 games. Or how about the fact that, despite being a top class defender in his playing days, his side have conceded more goals from set pieces than any other in the league yet have failed to score from a single corner themselves all season? Or perhaps Villa fans weren’t happy about watching their side lose to near neighbours West Brom for the first time on home soil since 1979 and now being on course to finish behind them in the league for the first time since that same season.
McLeish’s Villa play the most insipid brand of thoughtless, tactically devoid and uninspiring football seen in years.
Even ex-Blues loanee Alexander Hleb has come out to criticise McLeish’s anti-football tactics this week, while ex-Villan turned Bluenose defender Curtis Davies has hailed the virtues of current Blues boss Chris Hughton (who many Villa fans would happily take off their bitter rivals’ hands in place of McLeish), who encourages his team to play football rather than hammer “booming” long balls.
Despite all this, it seems us fickle Villa fans are staying away from Villa Park in droves simply because we have a former Blues boss in charge. Yes, of course, he came in with more to prove than most managers and it was always going to be an easy stick to beat him with if things didn’t go well. But things were never going to go well, were they? And he keeps providing us with even more sticks to beat him with, namely his style of football, his terrible, terrible style of football.
As for his counterpart in the opposite dugout tomorrow, Martin O’Neill can expect less of a warm welcome than was afforded to McLeish. He arrived as a messiah and worked his magic to take us to the brink of Champions League qualification, with two trips to Wembley along the way. So you would think a warm welcome may be the least he deserves (and no doubt he will get it from some, with opinion seeming to be pretty much divided on the hero or pariah question). But then he also signed cheques for fun and handed out £40,000-a-week contracts like confetti. For every Ashley Young or Stiliyan Petrov, there was a Habib Beye and a Marlon Harewood, signed for millions on huge contracts.
He keeps providing us with even more sticks to beat him with, namely his style of football, his terrible, terrible style of football.
When Lerner reigned in the spending, O’Neill walked. We may never know the full extent of the story but it was clear relations had broken down behind the scenes and the man adored by Villa fans broke their hearts and walked out on them just days before the start of the season, leaving the club in turmoil and hurtling towards a fall from grace which now sees Villa staring at the very real prospect of relegation in a season when they should be celebrating the 30th anniversary of winning the European Cup.
So love most certainly will not be in the air for either manager tomorrow, but one thing is for sure – we would take O’Neill back in a heartbeat.
This article first appeared at Brum Notes Magazine, the monthly guide to music, lifestyle and what's on in Birmingham
Other stories you might like
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook