Posts Tagged ‘Martin O’Neill’

Hard done by: Hughton's work had only just begun

In the run-up to the new season, I wrote about how Newcastle United could be a team to look out for, with their down-to-earth manager and their young, talented squad (pieced together on a shoestring budget), the newly-promoted former giants looked as though they had finally achieved a certain level of stability after years in the doldrums.

And indeed, this proved to be the case as the early stages of the season unfolded, with the Magpies picking up wins against the likes of Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea, and most notably Aston Villa (6-0), and Sunderland (5-1). Inevitably, there were low points too, such as Hatem Ben Arfa’s terrible leg injury, suffered at the hands of a defeat by Man City, and dismal performances against Blackpool, Blackburn, and most recently, West Brom. Having said that, the Toon Army currently sit 11th in the league, ahead of the  likes of Fulham, Everton and Villa. Why, then, has owner Mike Ashley decided that now was the right time to get rid of manager Chris Hughton, who had achieved so much in his 14 months in charge. A 55% win rate from 70 games, 102 points in the Chapionship last year. Statistics tell their own story, and these particular ones show that Hughton was the man to raise St James’ Park club from their mediocre status.

The first thought that came into my head when I heard the news this morning (Dec 6th), was the similarity between Hughton’s dismissal and that of Sir Bobby Robson, four games into the 2004/5 season. Parallels between the late, great Geordie and their newest casualty are plentiful; Robson had taken over in 1999, with the club rooted to the bottom of the Premiership, before slowly turning them around with a series of shrewd signings and a positive attacking style, reminiscent of the great Kevin Keegan era. Robson even brought them into the Champions League, because he was given the time, money and patience to do so.

Sir Bobby, 1999: Brought the good times back to Tyneside in a way few could have imagined

Hughton has been the best Newcastle manager since Robson, but time,  patience and money are no longer in fashion in Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct @ St James’ Park. The grim inevitability of the whole situation is perhaps the worst aspect, it has long been established through media sources that Ashley has wanted a more “showbiz” manager, after Hughton had essentially taken over by default when Joe Kinnear fell ill. Martin O’Neill currently stands at 7/2 to replace the former Ireland defender at Tyneside, but, considering the way in which O’Neill left Aston Villa, this move seems unlikely. Villa chairman, the American tycoon Randy Lerner, is seen as one of the more decent and rational money-men in the game, but O’Neill walked out when he discovered Lerner was unwilling to fork out too much cash during the summer transfer window.

Ben Arfa's capture was a stroke of genius by Hughton

The reasons behind Hughton’s sacking are much like the reasons you would dump a girlfriend before Christmas – so you don’t have to buy her a present. Hughton had identified a number of January transfer targets which could have helped the squad keep the momentum going after the testing Christmas schedule and beyond. Utrecht’s £8 million-rated Ricky Van Wolfswinkel was one such target, and talk of Robbie Keane, Niko Kranjcar and even Manchester United’s Anderson had been mentioned as potential new arrivals. Clearly, Ashley was not prepared to spend money on a manager he didn’t have faith in. When we look at Hughton’s dealings in the transfer market, however, we can see he has a keen eye for a bargain. Free transfer Sol Campbell has proved a worthy understudy to Fabricio Colloccini,  loan signing Hatem Ben Arfa’s talent is known the world over (although Hughton’s departure may jeopardise a permanent move to the North-East), while Cheik Tiote’s dominant performances in midfield have been one of the few consistent elements in what has been a rollercoaster season so far.

Sad as it may seem, the damage has been done now, and the Newcastle board will live and die by the decisions they make in the next few weeks.


After Liverpool’s disappointing 0-0 draw at St Andrew’s this weekend, and Villa’s last-minute defeat at the hands of Stoke, we can see there is a real air of uncertainty around both clubs, but are they really in a state of decline, or just transition?

‘Pool Predicament

Assessing the draw against Birmingham, the Irish Independent carried the headline “What’s wrong with Torres?,” but really, Roy Hodgson’s men have many more problems than just their misfiring Spaniard. Money has been a huge issue for a few years now, with unpopular American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett coming under serious pressure to step down. There seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel when Chinese businessman Kenny Huang showed an interest in buying the club, but that deal has since fallen through. The real problem, however, lies in the lack of top-quality personnel at the club.

Benitez - Under fire from old foe Mourinho

Even Roy Hodgson, who had received so much praise for guiding Fulham to a Europa Cup final with meagre resources, could not have imagined the extent of the challenge he now faces at Anfield. The squad he has inherited from Rafa Benitez is weak in every area of the pitch, and they simply don’t have the money to put it right. In a recent interview, Jose Mourinho fired a parting shot at his successor as Inter coach, saying Benitez had effectively reduced the Liverpool setup to mere also-rans, saying “It is very difficult for Roy to do it with Liverpool as, over the last few years, they have been getting worse, worse and worse. The Liverpool of 2004 was better than the Liverpool of 2005, 2005 was better than 2006 and 2006 better than 2007.” Strong words indeed, and it’s worth noting that he and Rafa did not always see eye-to-eye, but as The Special One himself says of Hodgson’s new squad; “he needs time and it’s not easy because I don’t think they went in the right direction.”

Mourinho is justified in this statement when we look at the kind of players Benitez has brought in over the last few years. Nabil El Zhar, Ryan Babel, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Alberto Aquilani, Philipp Degen and Emiliano Insua have all been costly flops, with Aquilani standing out as one of the worst purchases of the decade. The midfielder, who was supposed to fill the boots of the influential Xabi Alonso, is now back in Italy, on loan to Juventus after making absolutely no impression on the Premier League.

The rare sight of Aquilani in a Liverpool jersey

In fact, the sale of Alonso was a real turning-point in the club’s fortunes. They came 7th in their first season without him, and seem to have bought not one, but two players – Christian Poulson and Raul Meireles – to replace him. Whether either can combine with Steven Gerrard in the way the Spaniard did remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. Both of these new recruits are dogged, holding midfielders, so it seems unlikely that they will have the same passing vision or guile in the final third of the pitch.

On top of this, the free signing of Joe Cole this summer already seems to have been a typically disappointing Liverpool venture. Cole hasn’t hit anything close to his best form since his West Ham days, and that wasn’t today or yesterday. Lucas, Dirk Kuyt, Milan Jovanovich and Maxi Rodriguez make up the rest of their underwhelming midfield. So, when Torres and Gerrard are playing badly, which they have been for quite some time, where can they turn to for inspiration? Martin Skrtel?

So, what about Villa?

With Gerard Houllier taking over this week, can we expect to see more of the same inconsistent Aston Villa, who can lose 6-0 to Newcastle and then beat Everton a week later?

Marc Albrighton is one of many exciting young Englishmen who Villa have produced in recent times

There’s no doubt they’ve had a strange start to the season, but, had they beaten Stoke last night (13th Sept), they would have gone into third place. Under Martin O’Neill, they had developed a young, home-grown and exciting squad of players, who had performed consistently well for the last few seasons. Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Stephen Warnock, Stuart Downing are all vying for places in the England squad, while the young Marc Albrighton has been one of the revelations of the season so far. There is little doubt they have quality, but the sale of James Milner to Manchester City (who will be one of their closest rivals come May) sent the club into disarray, and Martin O’Neill was next out the door.

O'Neill arguably quit when the going got tough at Villa Park

While O’Neill’s frustration at not being able to use the Milner money to fund new signings was understandable, they did recruit a suitable replacement in Stephen Ireland, who is only one step behind Milner in terms of quality. The fact is, compared to Hicks and Gillett, Villa’s very own American chairman, Randy Lerner, is quite a reasonable, unobtrusive kind of guy, who seems to have the interest of the club at heart. O’Neill should have stayed, and while Houllier will relish the challenge put in front of him, it could be difficult to build upon last season’s sixth place in the current climate.

Money is power in the Premiership these days, and while Roberto Mancini’s Man City have yet to hit top form, there can be little doubt they will be fighting it out for a top-four finish. Spurs, Arsenal and Everton all have stronger squads than Villa, and we may even see Fulham or Birmingham fighting it out for the Europa League spots. So, can Villa get in there again this year? The answer is yes, but it will be a lot harder than before, and a real test of Houllier’s abilities as a coach.