Martin O’Neill has recently begun his fourth season as manager of Aston Villa Football Club and has unarguably built a squad of players that look like once again cementing their position as one of the top six teams in one of the most revered leagues in world football.
He has successfully overseen the purchase of various players in several different transfer windows, as well as seeing the advent of a global financial crisis that promises to affect football clubs the world over.
Why then do the transfer dealings of what is quite obviously an incredibly shrewd manager continue to come under scrutiny by fans and pundits? This, despite Villa proving that without a ‘superstar’ striker they can consistently score as many goals as the ‘top four’ over a Premier League season and boast a chunk of the best young British talent.
Criticism was levelled at O’Neill following the £9.5m purchase of young, unproven Watford forward Ashley Young who has since shown enough promise to break into England’s international set up. Also the exorbitant price paid for young winger James Milner who has also recently followed Young into Fabio Capello’s World Cup plans and has begun to justify the £12m paid.
So it seems that while O’Neill is often criticised for his transfer dealing he continues to add quality to his squad, whether it is quality that everyone else recognises at first or not. Before the closing of the Northern Irishman’s first window in charge at Villa Park he uttered that he would not have a problem paying over the odds for a player if he felt that he was the right player.
He also stated that he would not even entertain the idea of stretching the club financially in a world that has seen great clubs like Newcastle, Leeds and Southampton drop out of the top division and in some cases free fall down the leagues.
When taking this attitude into consideration it appears miraculous the way he has taken an ageing team full of also-rans who were flirting with the lower echelons of the division and for whom the future looked mildly bleak and full of mediocrity, transforming them into one of the best exponents of counter attacking football in the Premier League behind maybe Arsenal and Manchester United.
Looking through the players signed by O’Neill it is easy to grasp the sort of player that appeals. The side is full of honest, hard working individuals with time on their side and with undeniable quality.
James Collins appears to be the latest player to be added to this list and is already beginning to look a snip at £5m, while Joleon Lescott continues to flatter to deceive in the blue half of Manchester. Coupled with Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock all three look to have the sort of quality, attitude and work ethic to add much needed strength and depth to Villa’s defence, while costing £3m less than half the fees paid out for Glen Johnson and the aforementioned Lescott this summer.
Other summer signings include Leeds youngster Fabian Delph, who has already shown the huge fee paid by O’Neill to be less of a gamble and more of a long term bargain and England international Stewart Downing who is known to have been courted by various top flight managers including Harry Redknapp and Raphael Benitez.
In fact Downing's mooted transfer value soared at £18m during the January window and some consider the £12m paid by O’Neill to be a snip for a player many consider to be an ‘England star’ of the future.
O’Neill continues to add youth to his squad as he builds for the long term and a type of long term stability which is a ‘must have’ in club football, unless you have the inexhaustible riches afforded to the likes of Chelsea and Man City in recent times. Chelsea fans may even argue that tehir true strength is the established spine of spine of the first eleven.
O’Neill is obviously a believer in this and the slow and deliberate manner in which he has assembled his squad of young players with a point to prove will surely add to a team that consistently appears to total more, than the previously suspected sum, of its parts.
When hecklers of O’Neill’s transfer policy attempt to undermine the progress Aston Villa are clearly making a number of transfers are always at the fore; namely Moustapha Salifou, Wayne Routledge, Marlon Harewood, Shaun Maloney, Zat Knight, Emile Heskey and Curtis Davies. In order to dispel some of the negative attitude surrounding these transfers it is easy to see that the transfers of Salifou, Harewood and Routledge were simply a means to an end giving the squad a little extra depth while O’Neill endeavoured to bring in more substantial long term targets.
As a result all these players no longer form part of the ‘Villa five year plan’ and Harewood has already scored several important goals that, given the close margin by which the claret and blue half of Birmingham finished in sixth the last two seasons, ensured they finished where they did. Maloney was sold back to Celtic for the same price Villa paid for him after his failure to settle down south, a nominal loss was made on Routledge that ran into hundreds of thousands rather than millions and Salifou was a gamble that many never expected to come off and brought in for a very insignificant fee by modern standards.
More controversy surrounds the purchase of Heskey, Davies and Knight because many considered these players to be first team picks. Zat Knight was sold to Bolton for a profit on what was paid to Fulham two years before and the money made was available for Collin’s transfer from West Ham, which many are now calling a master stroke.
Curtis Davies is a young player who may well go on to justify his large price tag and many expect him to come back and impress after struggling with a shoulder injury since his protracted move from West Brom. When playing well he has already proven he has enough to catch the eye of Fabio Capello.
Possibly the biggest question mark hangs over the head of Emile Heskey, mainly because of his lack of goals since his move from Wigan. He does however have no shortage of fans in the game and cost less than Harewood.
It seems, when deconstructed, that Martin O’Neill may not quite be the transfer bumbler many make him out to be and has a squad that looks able to mount a realistic push for trophies this season. If a number of first team players can take a leaf out of Stylian Petrov’s book and can force early critics to eat their words with a display that earned him several club accolades last season after a slow start, then surely the doubters will have nowhere to hide as O’Neills young lions go from strength to strength.