They say beware the ides of March, but it was the first of the month in 2009 that did Villa in. We were home to Stoke and clinging to 4th in the table. The boys ran out on the pitch and the atmosphere was electric. The Champions League was finally in sight. The lineup was:
Aston Villa: Friedel, Cuellar, Knight, Davies, Luke Young, Milner, Petrov, Barry, Ashley Young, Agbonlahor, Heskey (Carew 76).
Subs Not Used: Guzan, Harewood, Delfouneso, Reo-Coker, Shorey, Gardner.
We were up 2-nil and playing brilliant football when the season fell apart, I, watching the match, could see the moment when we weren’t going to qualify. It was heartbreaking. Nerves started to become tangible, passes went astray, clearances failed, and 2 seemingly inevitable goals from Shawcross and Fuller in the dying embers of the match denied us from going 8 points ahead of 5th placed Arsenal.
The rest is history: The Stoke draw marked the 3rd match of a 10 match winless streak that brought us from coasting in 4th to 6th. That’s the closest we’ve come in some time.
The captain of the ship was Martin O’Neill and the side was strong. We still had our captain, Gareth Barry, and had brought in James Milner, Stilyan Petrov, Ashley Young, and John Carew (the heroes of those sides). O’Neill was a tactical genius. A man who could strike the balance between defense and attack like few others, but he was also a big spender. We were so close, but after losing our captain, Barry, to Manchester City a rift appeared between O’Neill and the owner Lerner. O’Neill’s lack of financial nous was the reason.
O’Neill’s departure on Sky Sports.
Take a second glance at the bench against Stoke. Their combined transfer fees were around £20m and they were all making more than £1m a year. The wage basement for the team ostensibly became around 20-25k and it was putting the club in debt without bringing us into the Champions League. The 2009 season would be O’Neill’s last opportunity to make the Champions League before he had to cut his dross or leave the club. After another 6th placed finished, the clubs split and mutual sadness was the only way to express the feeling at Villa Park.
Lerner was no longer willing to pay exorbitant rates for what was a glorified mid-table side and I, unfortunately, agree with him. Since 03/04 only Tottenham, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea have a net-spend greater than us and teams like Newcastle (outside of their relegation), Arsenal, and Everton have showed equal or better results despite balancing their checkbooks over the past 10 years. One perceived reason for this is O’Neill’s lack of accumen with or refusal to look at (or both) foreign markets. The only non-British players Villa signed in his 4 years at the club were Carew, Petrov, Cuellar, Friedel, Guzan, and Beye. He signed 18 British or Irish players in that time span.
The quality of the player in relation to his transfer fee and his wages will always be more important than the quality of the player and top foreign leagues have traditionally provided more bang for your buck (although plenty of failures). Richard Dunne was the perfect example of the exorbitant expenditures on players from the Britain and Ireland. Despite being a defender of average to slightly above-average Premier League quality he got put on £2.5m wages by O’Neill, double Bacary Sagna’s and roughly equal to Evra and Ledley King’s (back when he was in good health).
Imagine the look on my face this morning when I find out that O’Neill is doing it again. He’s just signed Steven Fletcher for a rumoured 14 million quid. Making Fletcher worth: 2.15 Sigurdssons, 1.07 Girouds, 1.8 Vlaar, Holman, El Ahmadi, and Lowtons, 2.33 Kevin Mirallas’s, and 2 Marko Marins. I have nothing against Fletcher and actually think he is quite good, but he is not a £14m player. O’Neill seems like he is doomed to repeat his mistakes in perpetuity.
Paul Lambert has already begun fixing the culture of institutionalized greed that O’Neill had woven into the fabric of Villa and tried to trim the wage budget while scouring the Eredivisie and Lower Leagues for 4 new affordable signings: Ron Vlaar, Karim El Ahmadi, Matthew Lowton, and Brett Holman. The combined cost of these players is less than Stephen Warnock and 3 are regular internationals. It will be a slow build, but maintained success will always be more gratifying than building just to destroy.