Villains steal from the rich

In an era of foreign ownership and big money transfers, Barclays Premier League Club, Aston Villa, seems to be comfortable with going about its success the old fashioned way: through teamwork, camaraderie, loyalty and respect for the boss.  Since his arrival in the summer of 2006, Martin O’Neill has revitalised the Club with a promise of better things to come.

O’Neill is a very likeable Manager; his ongoing relationship with the confrontational English media is usually calm, honest and right on the money.  His personality appears to have won-over the dressing room at Villa Park.  He has the ability to motivate, encourage and drive his team onto victory, while at the same time allowing for open and constructive criticism of his players.

He reminds me of Australian master-interviewer, Andrew Denton, in looks and possibly style with his passion for knowledge.  The task of competing with the big guns – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – is gigantic.  But O’Neill deserves praise for doing so this season with a squad made up of predominantly English players.  An achievement his adversaries have not been willing to chase.

Villa has a solid starting line-up, since January 2007, 13 new players have been added to the first team with four promoted from the youth ranks in O’Neill’s effort to build for the future.  When you read the names of the Villa players’ you may struggle to picture them.

Names like Curtis Davies, Luke Young and Nicky Shorey are not at the top of the list when you rank the EPL’s best defenders.  Nigel Reo-Coker and Craig Gardner are not amongst the most threatening central-midfielders in the league; Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young are good but not great; and Gabriel Agbonlahor hasn’t won FIFA World Player of the Year yet.  But this group do share what has been distinctly absent at the pinnacle of English football: they’re English.

Add January transfer journeyman, Emile Heskey, and the Villa team-sheet holds 9 out 11 Englishmen plus others warming the bench.  This in my opinion is English football.  This Villa team with O’Neill as Manager is flying the flag for the cause, the cause for English football to rise to the challenges of the modern game.  It starts at the grassroots and goes all the way to the national team.  England Manager, Fabio Capello, would be pleased with O’Neill and the Villa set-up, watering the grass for him with such care.

For some time now the EPL has attracted big name foreign players, mainly to the top four Clubs.  This has made it almost impossible for the chasing-pack to ever believe they can win the title.  How can this be good for the game?  Now it appears Manchester City’s new owners will add themselves to the list using their Gulf currency.

I remember the days during the 90s when the EPL was a real fight.  Sure, Manchester United was great during those times but they did not have it easy every season.  These days a team like Villa or Everton or Tottenham has no chance of anything but a 4th place finish.  For a player, how do you motivate yourself to play football when qualifying for a European Cup competition is the best you can hope for after a season’s effort?

Are teams like Villa just supposed to be happy with a “chance” of winning the Carling Cup or perhaps, the FA Cup?  There is a “serious” problem in England.  It’s Manager’s like O’Neill, David Moyes and Harry Redknapp that are doing what they can to stay true to the best interests of the league and the English game.

O’Neill has pumped-up his squad to deflate the ego’s of the top four, stealing points almost every round and as it stands, Villa is equal 3rd on points and still in with a shot for 2nd, however unlikely it may seem, a few slip-ups by Liverpool and Chelsea and you never know.

So what’s the secret to O’Neill’s recipe?  It looks simple enough to me.  He has a strong centre-back pairing and experienced goalkeeper in American-import, Brad Freidel.  He has pace on the wings with Milner and Young and a constructive midfield under the leadership of Barry, an England international.  Not to mention a constant goal-scoring threat in Agbonlahor.

Villa were desperately unlucky not to beat Wigan Athletic on the weekend, amazingly some sections of the Villa Park crowd booed the team off the pitch, much to the displeasure of O’Neill as his team clearly deserved better than a 0-0 draw.  I believe the reaction from the fans was a natural one because they have not been used to winning and want it to continue so passionately.  Villa has equalled a Club-record this season having won 6-consecutive games away from home, not bad.  I bet they can improve on that too.

O’Neill has had reasonable success in England before with Leicester City – Heskey played under him there as a young lad – and of course a tone of success with Scottish-giants Celtic where he won the league three times.  We got a taste of O’Neill’s pedigree watching his Celtic team fight against José Mourinho’s, FC Porto, in the UEFA Cup Final of 2003.  He lost that epic in extra-time but always looked like a quality Manager who could do more.  He was my first choice for the England job ahead of Capello.

Under the guidance of O’Neill and the intent of his English-born players, Villa has a real chance of booking a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League and advertising “real” English football.  I can hear the fans saying bring back the glory-days of 1982 when Villa defeated Bayern Munich 1-0 in the European Cup Final.

To the many fans out there that support one of the big four sides, I urge you to make Villa your second team.  They need all the support they can get.  The EPL can learn a lot from the global financial crisis, the capitalistic values, which govern the big boys, may be in need of a bailout in the near future after the bubble bursts.  What would be left then, back to football?  O’Neill would argue, that’s all that matters anyway.

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