Let me take you back a few months. On March 30, Aston Villa had to scramble to quash rumours that O’Neill had quit the club. Reports of a rift between the manager and American owner Randy Lerner were never confirmed, but speculation that Lerner was about to significantly chop the summer transfer budget led many to believe that O’Neill would jump ship.
A devastating 7-1 loss to Chelsea on March 27 had set the rumour mill in motion. Supporters seemed increasingly disgruntled with O’Neill and the club’s progress, and the 58-year-old admitted he would take the fans’ displeasure into consideration when sitting down with Lerner at the end of the campaign.
O’Neill also suggested that Lerner had yet to inform him of the club’s summer transfer budget. “I will find out when I speak to him,” he said at the time. Another signal that relations were far from comfortable between manager and owner.
Then nothing happened. Villa scrapped to another, respectable sixth-place finish and O’Neill looked destined to stick with the same squad of players for another season. No sales; no buys. Yes, Manchester City were keen to sign James Milner, but O’Neill had fended off Liverpool’s pursuit of Gareth Barry, and he seemed confident he could keep Milner at Villa Park for at least another year.
That scenario became less and less likely as the summer progressed. And when a big-money transfer—desired by Lerner to both raise funds and reduce the wage bill—became inevitable, O’Neill became more and more uncomfortable. He delayed the Milner transaction as long as he could before finally agreeing a deal that would have brought Stephen Ireland to Villa. If he couldn’t retain his star player, at least he could get a decent midfielder in return.
That deal is probably dead in the water. Lerner claims the club financially underperformed last term, and he wants cash to offset his losses. He’ll do his best to make a Milner-for-money agreement with City, and will be tempted to sell Ashley Young as well.
Back to the timing of the resignation. O’Neill is many things, but he is not the type of person to leave a club high and dry with less than a week before the start of the season. That’s not his style. And that tells me one thing: he didn’t want to go.
I think O’Neill really believed he could make something work at Villa going forward. Even with a small transfer budget at his disposal, he probably would have stayed at the club. He obviously wanted to sign Aiden McGeady, but Lerner simply closed his wallet. The owner wasn’t about to take on any more wages. Instead, he cut off the supply of funds and encouraged the sales of important assets such as Milner and Young.
O’Neill was never going to stand for that. Having tried everything—and having lasted at the club a lot longer than he probably believed he would—he walked. It was a choice made on principle.
For O’Neill, Aston Villa were a big club with rich traditions and an equally promising future. When the owner no longer shared that vision, he called it a day.