Martin O’Neill’s reputation has always seemed peculiarly bulletproof. Just the other week, in an appearance on the Football Focus sofa, John Hartson was still tipping him to succeed Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager.
It was like being transported back to the early 2000s, a time when pre-Roman Abramovich Chelsea were considered largely inoffensive underachievers, Michael Ricketts was in proud possession of an England cap and O’Neill was widely regarded as one of the most promising managers of the new millennium.
However, a decade on and after a disastrous run of two wins from his last league 22 games as Sunderland manager, some uncomfortable questions are finally being asked about the Northern Irishman’s ability.
Hartson’s suggestion that he should be in the running at Old Trafford is plainly absurd but hardly surprising given the level of devotion he has long inspired in players and supporters alike. Hartson, a staunch O’Neill acolyte and favourite from his Celtic days, where they won numerous titles and reached the final of the UEFA Cup together, understandably continues to champion O'Neill's cause. Yet the popularity he enjoys amongst the public at large, disproportionate to his actual achievements, is rather more mystifying.
Leicester was undoubtedly a prolonged success story. O’Neill turned driven yet limited sorts like Robbie Savage, Matt Elliott and Neil Lennon into a competitive Premiership outfit that steered well clear of the relegation scrap and even lifted the League Cup in 1997 and 2000. Working on a budget brought the best out of O’Neill, forcing him to scour the lower leagues for unpolished talent rather than simply parachuting in the finished product.
By contrast, the free reign over finances he was given at Aston Villa and Celtic proved a costly experience for all concerned. Both clubs have had to scale back their ambitions and expenditures dramatically since O’Neill left. Celtic are still struggling with an inflated wage bill attributable to his period in charge.
Upon arrival in Scotland, he brought Rangers’ extended spell of dominance to an immediate end, delivering a domestic treble in his debut season. Yet the resources committed to coming out on top in this two-horse race are rarely discussed. Courtesy of an unprecedented spending spree, Celtic were able to lure Chris Sutton, John Hartson and Alan Thompson, amongst others, north of the border on huge deals.
Overpaying for such players, who, in their prime, serve an immediate purpose before becoming an unwieldy and impossible-to-shift burden, is something of an O’Neill specialty.
He left a similarly expensive legacy at Aston Villa, where Stephen Warnock and Richard Dunne—bought for big fees and of limited resale value—remain in situ. Some, including Emile Heskey, Carlos Cuellar and Habib Beye, finally left over the summer. Beye, like Bobo Balde before him, stubbornly saw out an overly generous long-term contract without troubling the first team.
The expected call from one of England’s elite clubs, or the national team, failed to materialise after O’Neill’s trophy-laden tenure at Celtic. So he pitched up at Villa Park instead, where—flush with investment from Randy Lerner—he was expected to propel them towards the Top Four.
A net spend of £84 million during his time in the Midlands brought successive sixth-place finishes, but the Champions League remained elusive. Significantly, O’Neill left when he found the American owner unwilling to throw good money after bad by continuing to back him in the transfer market.
Although many managers have narrow horizons when it comes to scouting, O’Neill is one of the worst culprits. His tendency to pay a premium for unexceptional British players rather than risk looking further afield for bargains, in evidence at both Villa and Celtic, can be seen in his Sunderland dealings as well.
Indeed, he dedicated the entire summer and £12 million to chasing Steven Fletcher when Swansea acquired the infinitely more talented and versatile Miguel Pérez Cuesta for a sixth of that fee.
Aside from a love of the chequebook, his methods remain distinctly old-school. He is a motivator more than an innovator. The virtues of this approach (loyalty to a preferred starting XI, an anachronistic fondness for wingers—Steve Guppy, Stewart Downing, Ashley Young and Adam Johnson—and emphasis on an up-tempo playing style) may have outweighed the drawbacks for a time, but not now.
Football has evolved, O’Neill has not; he continues to get by on residual goodwill as it stands.