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Doug Ellis was notorious as a hire-and-fire-’em chairman, but, after 35 years of trying, it looks as though his final appointment of an Aston Villa manager could at last be the right one.
There is a theory that too much is laid at managers’ doors, that too often they are used as scapegoats, but the example of Martin O’Neill would suggest they do not get blamed nearly enough.
Ellis took charge of Villa in 1968, and, aside from a two-year hiatus (during which Villa won both the league title and the European Cup) was chairman until selling to American billionaire Randy Lerner last summer. His reign saw 13 changes of manager, two relegations and three promotions before he finally established the club as a mid-table Premiership staple.
Last season Villa slumped to 16th, with the manager David O’Leary under fire from fans – “We’re not fickle, we just don’t like you” read one banner at the Holte End – and the players criticising Ellis’s parsimony. He refused, they alleged, to pay for a masseur, proper pitch-watering and even a cup of coffee for a physio.
So bad had things got that the players announced that they were not good enough and new signings were needed. Decline seemed endemic – and for the biggest club in England’s second biggest city, that was frankly baffling.
And yet O’Neill has arrived, brought in three players he knew from his days at Celtic, and enacted such a remarkable transformation that a victory at Wigan on Sunday could lift them as high as third. O’Neill has dismissed Champions League qualification as “an impossible dream”, but if Liverpool continue to struggle, that fourth slot has to go to somebody and Villa are playing as well as any of the contenders.
They are not the most exuberant team. Last week’s 1-0 win at Everton was little more than a slog, in admittedly awful conditions, but it did showcase what Villa do well. Deep into injury time, Gavin McCann was still tearing across to the touchline to close down an opponent; he and his central midfielder partner Isaiah Osbourne were indefatigable in a performance of universal energy and discipline.
There is an intelligence, too. Villa began the season playing 4-3-3, but after injury robbed them of Luke Moore, another speedy young forward, they reverted to 4-4-2. In the final 20 minutes last week, though, as Everton launched an aerial bombardment, O’Neill brought on Didier Agathe and pushed Olof Mellberg inside to form a 3-5-2, giving them an extra man in central defence to snaffle any knockdowns won by James Beattie.
The England national team’s struggle to cope with new formations shows just how difficult doing this can be, and that Villa were able to switch so seamlessly is a credit to O’Neill.
It is perhaps unfair to use a hypothetical stick to beat Steve McClaren, but it is hard not to wonder how O’Neill would have fared as England coach, a job for which he was interviewed. Other sides will also ponder what-might-have beens.
The Champions League won by Rafael Benitez will comfort Liverpool, but as they flounder away from home, it is only natural for thoughts to go back to the moment when Gérard Houllier left and they could have approached O’Neill. If things go on as they are, by the end of the season those thoughts will be regrets.