Martin O’Neill is liked by the vast majority of Aston Villa fans. But loved? That’s a strong word.
Love suggests a mutual intimacy, the type of shared feelings that draw both partners to pursue a similar fate. The relationship between O’Neill and the club he manages was put under the microscope last week, and for the first time both he and Villa supporters were forced to examine their sentiments for one another. That it was so long in coming is not the least bit surprising.
Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill
O’Neill is a complicated man, a private man. On his professional merit alone, he’s more than qualified to manage almost any team in Europe. But there’s much more to him than his CV and the trophies accumulated at Wycombe, Leicester and Celtic. Had he not been a star midfielder, and subsequently a coach, he might have been a lawyer or criminologist. Indeed, when Nottingham Forest signed him in 1971, he was playing for Lisburn Distillery while going to school at Queen’s University in Belfast.
He remains fascinated by crime studies. Several years ago he flew to Dallas, Texas to observe the site where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It’s as though criminology—particularly unsolved cases—provides an outlet for inquisitive, methodical thinking. He once threatened to quiet Forest, telling manager Brian Clough he’d just as soon be back in university. The two men didn’t get on. Their passions and principles—unique to themselves but identically strong—had them constantly on the brink of a clash.
Those same principles led O’Neill out of football in 2005 when he stepped down from Celtic to care for his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer. They also guided his return to the game a year later when, with Aston Villa calling, he agreed a rolling contract that would be renewed from year to year. He claimed it was the Irish in him—the willingness to work without a sense of security—that allowed him to sign the deal, but it was probably more the realization that he might easily tire of the hassle of professional football at any given time.
He hinted at that on Sunday in an interview in the Observer, saying, “I wake up a number of mornings and convince myself that I need [football]. Occasionally I have to work harder at it and it might take me into the afternoon to convince myself I need it.”
The comments fit perfectly into the context of a week where the air was thick with rumors of his impending exit from Villa Park. He had never actually voiced an intent to quit the club, only to participate in the end-of-season meetings with club owner Randy Lerner that would decide the club’s strategy going forward. It was a statement laced with his typical pessimism.
It’s precisely that glum, morose disposition that keeps Villa fans from falling head over heels for O’Neill. He never gives anything away. Not his true feelings; not his personality; not his love for the club, if he happens to have any. In many respects, he became the lawyer he always wanted to be. Shrewd, effective and witty, but difficult to get a sense of, even mistrusted.
There has rarely been a coach of O’Neill’s pedigree and ability at Villa Park. Of that there is no argument. The fans respect him. But they also scratch their heads, unsure of their feelings toward him. It’s an unusual paradox in football, one you get the feeling O’Neill would prefer to remain intact.