I’ve often said that watching O’Neill’s Aston Villa is the best way to experience déjà vu. Whatever happens, you know you’ve been there before. There will always be good, promising starts to the season, drop-offs in February and ho-hum preseason friendlies. (That the club isn’t touring outside the country year after year is astonishing.)
Then there’s the transfer strategy, or lack thereof. Rather than offload players who have overstayed their welcome, O’Neill keeps them around. Instead of spending the owner’s money—if there is any—O’Neill sits on it. And if there isn’t cash available, he shows no creativity in the marketplace. He lets good free agents go elsewhere; he doesn’t sell to fund new acquisitions.
In a roundabout way, this brings me to James Milner. Once again, O’Neill’s approach is agonizingly familiar. Two years ago he held on to Gareth Barry, resisting numerous offers from Liverpool. And while the former captain played well in his final season at Villa Park, he was moved on to Manchester City the following summer.
Was it worth it? Did Barry’s value skyrocket in his final nine months in Birmingham?
Of course not. It was a wasted year for both the player and the club. And as O’Neill seems similarly convicted to avoid City’s advances on Milner, it’s not at all far-fetched to expect an identical conclusion to this transfer saga.
That’s a shame. While no one will argue Milner’s ability or his contribution to Villa last season, he’s a long way from being a £30 million footballer, or even a £25 million footballer. If the manager could get anything approaching £25 million for the 24-year-old, his best move would be to make the transaction.
If indeed Milner communicated his desire to join City as far back as May, O’Neill should have sprung into action immediately, ensuring that a deal could be finalized shortly after the World Cup. And given City’s obvious interest in the player, he probably should have drawn up a plan to replace Milner in February or March.
To me, this isn’t about Milner at all. Footballers will always go where the money is, and where they have a chance to win trophies. It might not be an easy fact to digest, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Milner wasn’t the first player to go chasing after glory, and he won’t be the last.
What sets a club apart is its ability to evolve and improve in spite of this reality. Aston Villa, unfortunately, is not such a club. At least not with O’Neill at the helm.
Success in modern football requires creative, imaginative leadership. Villa simply do not have it. While the likes of Everton, West Ham and Birmingham City began making numerous, quality transactions several weeks ago, Villa stood pat, cautious and tentative.
Like every year under O’Neill, they're being left out in the cold.