With Martin O'Neill's departure, AVFC supporters are struggling with how to approach the future. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
There's really no good way to wake up on a Monday morning, especially the Monday morning following a beer-soaked evening spent celebrating the joys of a convincing victory by your local soccer club. That last pint seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, but as you stumble out of bed towards the blaring alarm clock you begin to question your sanity. Things aren't improved by a cursory glance out the window and the sight of yet another gray summer day, clearly in violation of the contract we Pacific Northwesterners have with Mother Nature to provide us with three months of the best weather on earth in return for nine months of damp, drab misery.
On my way towards the shower, I noticed my phone flash a text message alert; given the company that I tend to keep, there's a fairly limited number of people likely to be awake at such an hour, and neither of my parents would be capable of sending a text message should their lives depend on it. It was readily apparent who was the message was from, and given my pessimistic nature I was fairly certain that the news wasn't going to be particularly pleasant. Even my negativity has its limits, however, and the news that awaited me could not have been more unexpected or more devastating. I felt like I was going to throw up, and though I'm sure the previous night's exploits played some role in my condition, I am beyond certain that they were in no way the leading contributor to the state in which I found myself.
I don't think that it is any secret that my devotion to Aston Villa is, in the grand scheme of things, a more recent development. I can look outside myself and realize how short a time it's been, but to me it feels like an eternity. That probably sounds like rubbish to lifelong supporters, and I wouldn't begrudge them such a reaction, but it's true. when I found Villa I found something that felt like it had been missing for so long that it instantaneously filled a whole that had been there my entire life. Which sounds melodramatic, I know. It's silly. But that doesn't make it any less factual. But I still know that I've missed a lot, and that's certainly contributed to my reaction.
Martin O'Neill is the only Villa manager that I have ever known. He is, to me, inseparable from the identity of the club. It's not that I don't know my history; I know the names Hunter, McGregor, Massie, and Saunders. As strange as it may sound, I swell with pride whenever I am reminded of Villa's European Cup triumph and feel a painful twinge when I am reminded of their many failures. But in terms of real, tangible experiences? Martin O'Neill is all I know.
Villa have perpetually been, over the course of my attachment to them, a club on the rise. When people ask why they should consider supporting Villa (and people do ask, more than I ever thought possible) I talk about the club's wealth of young talent, their stable financial situation and their gifted manager, with an eye for prospects and a track record of taking the clubs to increasingly greater heights. And over the course of the next several hours, I felt all of that unraveling. Milner was on his way out, that much was for certain, but what about Ashley Young, or Gabby Agbonlahor? Would we be in this same position with Marc Albrighton or Nathan Delfouneso this time next season? And how stable were the clubs finances, really? If this were simply an issue of the transfer budget, was it really so bad as to cause MON to up and quit less than a week before the start of the season? And of course, who could ever replace MON anyways? The man was Aston Villa. At least to me. I won't say that my fandom was in danger, because it's far, far too late in the game for that. But for the first time, when I examined my relationship with Aston Villa, I felt a greater sense of dread than hope.
When I woke up this morning, it didn't take me too long to recognize something I hadn't really felt before. I was angry at Martin O'Neill. The details of his departure are still a bit hazy, but as information continues to seep out it is becoming apparent that this was not an issue of an impending sale of Ashley Young, or of the unfair refusal of Randy Lerner to make funds available to Martin O'Neill. This increasingly seems to be an issue of Martin O'Neill being unwilling to work within the plan that has been in place all along. Randy Lerner has never been anything but clear about the fact that while he was willing to invest in the club, Villa would need to do business in a sustainable fashion at a certain point. After several years of large operating losses and increasing debt, that time appears to be now. And while there's still a great deal of conjecture involved, it would appear as though Martin O'Neill was not willing to abide such a circumstance.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. MON has been given a not insignificant amount of money to spend during the transfer window over the past several years, and even his staunchest defenders (which, up until today, I would have considered myself to be) would admit that many of those expenditures have not as of yet borne fruit. It is difficult to criticize MON's eye for young talent, but the signings that were intended to strengthen the squad are, in hindsight, puzzling. Why were Sidwell, Reo-Coker, Young, Davies and Salifou being paid somewhere in the neighborhood of a collective £250,000 per week to sit on the bench? Why did a manager with such a reputation for discovering excellent prospects decide to fill out the roster with older, marginal, expensive players in exchange for depth?
I want to be clear; I'm not glad that Martin O'Neill is no longer at Aston Villa. While I have my criticisms, they're mostly related to his decision to leave the club; I strongly doubt that MON was not aware of the financial constraints that were likely to be imposed at a certain juncture, but for whatever reason he was not willing to accept his complicity in the state of the wage budget. That upsets me, because I bought into Lerner's steady approach and I'd thought that O'Neill had as well. With that being said, the club is in significantly worse shape than it was this time two days ago, and that's entirely because of Martin O'Neill's departure. He's in no way perfect, but once the squad is assembled he is as good at what he does as nearly anyone. There's the very real possibility that this season will not turn out as well as I'd hoped, and that's upsetting.
But in a way, I'm excited. It's a nervous excitement, to be certain; this could be the beginning of a steep decline, with the wrong manager driving the club towards the bottom of the table and, God forbid, to the Championship. But I think that's a long-shot. The club's decision makers clearly knew what they were doing in hiring Martin O'Neill, and nothing they've done as of yet leads me to believe that their decision was a fluke. I certainly have my preferences for the type of manager that is brought in, but I'll save that for another time. At the moment, I'm back to being optimistic. and that's a good feeling.
Martin O'Neill leaving Villa is a significant moment in my support of the club. If the Villan in me is still a kid, it's getting ready to move out of its parents house. It's scary, and it could go horribly awry, sure. But it will probably turn out just fine, and there's a very real possibility that things will get better from here on out. I might not have been around for a whole lot of this club's proud history, but I sure as hell want to be here for their bright future. And today, I feel like that's possible again.
So thanks, MON. I'll always have a great deal of affection towards you. I don't know why you left and a big part of me wishes you hadn't but you did. And now, you're no longer Villa to me. And that's liberating. I hope you do well, wherever it is you go. But I hope Villa do better.