Fabio Capello was yesterday honoured by the BBC as the Sports Personality Coach of the Year and that’s testament to what really has been an impressive transformation of England’s fortunes by the Italian. However, Capello has previously suggested that this will be his last job in management whether or not he wins the World Cup and so, while I remain full of hope that his reign will end on a high, I today had my thoughts turned towards possible successors.
Watching a replay of Aston Villa’s momentous triumph over Manchester United on Saturday evening I was really impressed by Aston Villa’s performance and the way in which they took the game to the Champions. Most incredibly though, was that aside from Brad Friedel and Stylian Petrov, the entire starting lineup was British, and (from memory) seven of them actually English. I couldn’t help thinking upon this realisation – and my apologies to Villa fans here – that Martin O’Neill would be the perfect successor to Fabio Capello.
O’Neill’s time in charge of Aston Villa has been an almost unqualified success, and under his careful leadership Villa have made consistent progress – culminating in last season’s push towards the top four. Though they fell short as the season wore on, he has overseen another blistering start to this campaign and with the victory over United backing up wins over Liverpool and Chelsea you have to think that they may once again push the ‘big four’ all the way.
This success has largely been built on the careful nurturing of young talent guided by a more experienced spine. Players like Brad Friedel, Richard Dunne, Stylian Petrov and Emile Heskey give the squad an excellent professional spine and some solidity on which to base the precocious talents of the likes of Ashley Young, Gabby Agbonlahor and James Milner among others. What this tells us, is that O’Neill certainly knows how to build a balanced side.
This is further evidenced by the fact that he has so easily overcome the loss of Gareth Barry in the summer, a player who had previously formed the lynchpin of his side. His summer acquisition of Stewart Downing has allowed Milner to assume the more central role that Barry previously occupied and while the transition was not quite flawless – they had a bumpy start to the season (though Downing was injured) – they certainly look none the worse for his loss.
And while arguably sometimes showing an over-reliance on a counter-attacking style his side also utilises the power and pace that has for so long epitomised the English game. In partnering Agbonlahor with a larger partner (either Heskey or Carew) and playing with out-and-out wingers and a creative midfield player, O’Neill maximizes his side’s attacking threat and he has also worked a miracle with his defence this season – marshalling an almost brand new back line and making them seem like they’d been together for years.
A real strength has also been his ability to nurture young talent with the development of Agbonlahor and Young from little known hot prospects into players on the fringe of the England squad and the tongues of football fans around the country and he has also overseen the completion of Milner’s development as a player. He has been earmarked for the top since bursting onto the scene with Leeds, but had stagnated somewhat in the intervening period.
O’Neill really does seem to have the ability to get the best out of his players. He’s a great man-manager who seems to build a great spirit in his teams and inspires great loyalty in them. That is a key skill for a national team manager, the ability to lasso a group of egotistical maniacs and get them all pulling in the same direction is one rarely seen even amongst many top coaches. O’Neill though, despite his softly spoken nature, seems able to bend players to his will.
Another impressive attribute of O’Neill’s is his tactical nous. He’s famously meticulous in his preparation for games, with any army of scouts watching upcoming opposition for three or four games in advance. He then analyses their set ups and their lineups and sets up his team to best react to and expose that particular style. This is very important, because it shows that O’Neill is aware that he can’t always boss games, and must sometimes change his style to overcome opposition.
At Aston Villa, this is important because he knows that the likes of United and Chelsea are technically superior to his squad. However, football is not played on paper and with careful tactical preparation he has shown that he can overcome the talent disadvantage that he faces. England too, are not the most gifted national side in the world. We can only dream of being able to call on the talents that the likes of Spain and Brazil currently possess and there’s no denying that we are inferior on paper. The ability to counter this natural disadvantage then, would be key.
Against United he certainly showed that he was not afraid to put faith in his tactics either. He’d identified Manchester United’s defence as their weak point and went all out to expose it – showing courage that few would possess by playing two up front and two out-and-out wingers against the Champions at Old Trafford. This allowed them to take the game to them and once they had their lead they continued to press, knowing that they couldn’t afford to sit back against United and allow the Manchester side to boss the game and play to their strengths. They rode their luck at times, but as the cliché goes, the fortune favours the brave.
Indeed, the one and only criticism that I can really think of that has been levelled at O’Neill in his time at Villa was his decision to sacrifice their UEFA Cup campaign last season to try to secure fourth place. The resultant defeat actually saw their season unravel, and you have to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to maintain confidence ahead of freshness and question O’Neill’s priorities.
However, such a problem wouldn’t even effect him as a national team coach. Almost every game counts when you’re in charge of a national side, and though friendlies are treated with disdain by many fans they are tremendously important to a manager to work on his side and O’Neill would therefore have no problems juggling priorities. He’d simply have to get the best out of his side every time they played and that would allow him to focus on his preparation, tactics and selections.
All in all then, I’d love to see Martin O’Neill take over as England boss when Don Fabio steps down after the World Cup. Of course, if Capello should oversee a successful campaign in South Africa he’d be offered all the money (and financial anonymity) in the world to remain in charge but whatever happens I feel we need to ensure that the progress that has seen Capello named as BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year needs to be maintained even after his reign comes to an end.
That means making sure that the right replacement is found, a man (or woman) who is best placed to continue the development of our country’s national side and I can’t think of any man more qualified at present than O’Neill. With such a young English side currently under his careful tuition he has already got some good links with likely England future stars and has shown that he can build a good English side on a reasonable budget – what could he do with no limitations?
However, while O’Neill may be the perfect choice from an England point of view, what would the man himself think of taking such a position? I hardly think he would relish the incredible spotlight that comes hand in hand with English football’s biggest job, being a reserved and private sort of fella. What’s more, as an Irishman he will feel no patriotic obligation to the role and as he seems to be making great strides as boss of Aston Villa may prefer to stay and finish his building project in the midlands rather than relocating to Wembley.
Aston Villa fans would likely be gutted to lose O’Neill too, and I hope they’ll forgive me for making such suggestions about their beloved gaffer. However, I’m sure many of them, like me, would love to see England finally end our long years of hurt and if Capello can’t do it next year, I have to say that O’Neill seems like the prime candidate to take over. Whether or not it could become a reality I don’t know, but after seeing his young English side overcome United yesterday, I’m convinced the Irishman could be the man to take England to the next level, and perhaps win a Sports Personality award of his own in the future…
Have your say:
What are your thoughts on England’s life after Capello? Am I getting too far ahead of myself? Would O’Neill do a good job? Would he ever consent to manage England? Is there a better candidate? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below…