PL25: How the Premier League’s transitional period killed Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa

With Aston Villa languishing in the Championship, it’s hard to remember many good times over the last few years.

Reaching an FA Cup final under Tim Sherwood is the highlight, even if a 4-0 thrashing suffered at the hands of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal when they eventually got there doesn’t make for the happiest of memories. But it’s easy to forget that Villa’s problems started a long time before Sherwood was appointed boss.

In the very first Premier League season, Villa came second – their best Premier League finish ever, and their beat league showing since their last victory in 1981. But the glory years never quite returned and Villa floated around the top half until the first decade of the 21st century, when mid-table obscurity and a relegation battle or two saw the club hit a low ebb.

Around that period, though, Martin O’Neill was working wonders in Scotland with Celtic, winning three league titles and bringing the club to the UEFA Cup final where they lost to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in Seville. That was in 2003, the same year that Villa finished 16th under Graham Taylor.

It was another 16th-placed finish in 2005/06, under Taylor’s replacement David O’Leary that made Villa turn to O’Neill, under whose tenure, the club enjoyed three sixth-place finishes in a row.

It was a period of Villa finding their place in a transitional period for English football. When O’Neill took over in 2006, the top four was a closed shop, with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool keeping a stranglehold on the Champions League places, with only Everton in 2005 breaking into the top four, but crashed out of Europe before the group stages even began. But by the end of the 2009/10 season, the year O’Neill left the club, Tottenham Hotspur finished fourth, and a new-look Manchester City came fifth.

That transition hasn’t been kind to Villa. The Randy Lerner years were lean, and it was a period where Villa – like everyone else in the league – had to prioritise financial security over almost everything else. That meant the league was the most important thing, and cup competitions were secondary. Since those years, Arsenal’s fourth place finishes have become a running joke, but their finances were secure because of it. It’s hard not to feel like that just sucks the fun out of life, though.

For Villa, that much is obvious from O’Neill’s own performances in cup competitions. Before Claudio Ranieri, the Northern Irishman was probably the most successful manager in Leicester City’s history, winning two League Cups and losing in the final a further time, too, but at Villa, O’Neill’s first few seasons saw the club eliminated in the very early stages of every cup competition they entered.

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Perhaps that was most apparent in the 2009 decision to, essentially, give up on the UEFA Cup. Thanks to a 2-0 defeat to CSKA Moscow, Villa crashed out of Europe after fielding a near-reserve side in order to focus on the league and a top four finish. It didn’t work, and perhaps it was that experience that changed things for O’Neill’s time at Villa.

He is clearly a manager suited to cup competitions, a man-manager with the ability to get his team fired up for a one-off cup game, but his cup record at Aston Villa left a lot to be desired until the watershed moment that was the CSKA Moscow debacle. The next year was to be his final season at the club, but Villa reached the League Cup final, losing to Manchester United, and also got to the FA Cup semi-finals, too.

It didn’t help much in the league, as a third successive sixth place followed, and perhaps that didn’t quite fit with Randy Lerner’s vision of what the club should be doing. League Cup finals make no money, Champions League qualification does. But for a football club, a cup run is a thrilling thing, and also represented Villa’s best chance of any real success in a Premier League era defined by the glass ceiling above fifth place.

That CSKA Moscow defeat was a seminal moment in many ways. It proved to Villa fans – and probably to O’Neill – that the club’s ownership weren’t interested in cup competitions, but Champions League qualification was probably too far out of reach to have any other objective.

And when O’Neill finally left the club, it was that turgid, boring and overtly financial strategy which became the cause of the split, with Lerner claiming that he and O’Neill “no longer shared a common view” over the way to take the club forward, and the manager claimed that a lack of transfer funds was key to his decision to leave. Perhaps that difference in opinion had been laid bare the season previously, when O’Neill’s side quite clearly prioritised the cups over the league, leading to a marked improvement in their cup performance.

It’s hard to get past the feeling that the end of the decade marked a huge shift in English football. Clubs like Aston Villa, Everton – who had been the Villans’ nemesis, finishing fifth and above the Birmingham club for most of the decade as the two financially smaller clubs attempted to take on the big four ahead of them – and even Newcastle United were ousted by the likes of Manchester City with more financial resources. The model of finishing strongly in the league in the hope of breaking into the Champions League and joining in the riches of the top four became impossible, as the league was shaken up massively.

And Villa sank.

The initial shock of losing O’Neill saw the club drop three places to ninth the next year, before falling even further and enduring four seasons of relegation battles until the end finally came in one of the most abject Premier League showings by any club in the history of the competition. A 13th place finish in the Championship last season just caps the fall from grace.

Losing O’Neill wasn’t the only reason for the fall. The changing face of the Premier League and the fact that the old model of slow and steady growth stopped working in the era of the meteoric rise didn’t help. But you get the feeling that had Lerner created an environment where glory was more important than sixth place, perhaps Villa could have lifted trophies under O’Neill and moving into the new decade in a period of growth and strength, rather than decay and decline.

Now they have to start all over again, this time from their lowest ebb since 1974, when Villa finished 14th in the second tier, but were promoted the very next season. Less than a decade later they were European champions. But don’t bet on that happening again.