The complex and intense Northern Irishman has shown an uncanny knack of understanding when a side under his control has reached its nadir. And so it proved again last week, when he realised that Randy Lerner’s ambitions for Aston Villa no longer matched his own.
For three years O’Neill and the quiet but supportive Lerner appeared a perfect match. The American backed his manager in the transfer market and O’Neill looked to build a lasting legacy. But with Lerner’s wallet beginning to close as he realised he could not compete with the spending power enjoyed by Manchester City and Tottenham, O’Neill has realised that he can only take the club backwards from here.
Three successive sixth place finishes will be remembered as the halcyon days at Villa Park after Lerner revealed his spendthrift intentions with the sales of Gareth Barry last year, James Milner this summer, and possibly Ashley Young before August is out.
With Villa weakened, and improved showings expected from Liverpool and Everton, O’Neill would have faced a near impossible task to finish sixth again, which is why he has chosen to go now, reputation still intact. He can’t really be blamed for his decision, running a selling club on a tight budget wasn’t what he signed up for and would never appeal for his ambitions. He wanted to return Villa to their glory days and felt he could do that if he had the financial backing that looked forthcoming in his first few seasons.
Impulse decisions to quit over transfer policy are not a new development for O’Neill, he walked out on Norwich City just months after taking over in 1995 in a battle over the signing of Dean Windass. O’Neill made his name at Leicester City, where, like the man he idolised and who shaped his ideas in management, he took a provincial Midlands club to great glory. Unlike Brian Clough he didn’t win any league titles or European Cups, but two League Cup wins and four successive top ten finishes were a remarkable return for a club who he steered to promotion in his first season.
A League Cup and eight place in the league in 2000 were as good as it was ever going to get at Filbert Street, and once again O’Neill knew he could do little more for the club. The year after he left they slumped to mid-table and 12 months later they were finished bottom of the Premier League. He continued to build his reputation at Celtic, picking up the pieces from the John Barnes era with three league titles, before he left to look after his ill wife with the club slipping to second place in his final season.
There is no obvious job on the cards for O’Neill at the moment, but he will still be regarded as something of a maverick manager with a reputation for success when the big jobs come up. Had he stuck it out at Villa Park and overseen the club slip down the league, he may not have been in the same position.