James Lawton: O'Neill's return promises fighting spirit to fire Villa's emergence from wilderness

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The Independent Online

Here is a phrase that needed infinite polishing and practice and still comes out like a fragment of the ramblings of some poor soul who has lost a long battle with reality: what a wonderfully thrilling day it is for a supporter of Aston Villa.

Not only does the club formerly known as one of the saddest, most futile organisations in all of professional sport have a new prospective patron in the American banker and gridiron team owner Randy Lerner - who seems to understand that in football, as in most areas of life, you tend to get back only what you put in - it has one of those few managers capable of earning goodwill beyond the boundaries of partisanship.

Martin O'Neill, at least it is the feeling here, has a passion for the game and a body of work guaranteed to pick up floating fans as Muhammad Ali used to do casual companions while strolling down Broadway or Michigan Avenue. It is about the recognition of a serious fighter, someone who invests in what he does the magic of ultimate commitment. Bill Shankly had it, Sir Matt Busby in his quiet way and, if we are honest, Sir Alex Ferguson in rather less subdued fashion.

At the Emirates Stadium today, O'Neill goes against no less than Arsenal after an absence from the game dictated by the priority he placed on caring for his wife through a serious illness, and such a challenge is surely appropriate. Villa fans suffered the tortuous hiatus of chairman Doug Ellis, and the honeyed meanderings of David O'Leary, long enough, and their immediate reward - as they wait expectantly for Lerner's version of the Marshall Plan - is that their dreams are already in the hands of a proven winner.

No doubt they will shrug away the grotesque Football Association explanation of why, in the race to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson, O'Neill failed to profit from the collapse of talks with Luiz Felipe Scolari and the lack of proper interest in Guus Hiddink. The word was that O'Neill didn't interview well. Translation: he didn't say the right things, he didn't swoon with enthusiasm when asked whether he saw himself as the apex of a coaching structure in England. No, he said, he wanted to take a talented but under-achieving team and knock into it some of the fundamentals of success. That was the job, no more and no less, and it was enough of a task.

At Villa the same rules apply. O'Neill's track record is without flaw. He transformed Wycombe and Leicester City, and when he arrived at Celtic - a club marooned way back in the slipstream of Glasgow Rangers - his impact was the immediate one of a Scottish league title. At Villa the challenge will not be easy. He has to re-order the thinking of a club that has been detached from the hard edge of serious competition for so long. But hopes that he will have some instant effect, draw all that he can from what he has seen to be available to him on the training field, are founded on the most solid of grounds - not in any bluster or rhetoric but his pure achievement.

He is a prickly, some might say eccentric character. However, he represents something that has been largely lost in the rich but deeply cynical Premiership. It is a degree of competitive honesty, a belief in speaking of what you see rather than what might suit you best. Of course he has borrowed from his mentor, Brian Clough, and some of the outspokenness can be just as provocative as that of Old Bighead. But you can only ape a manner, not a set of achievements, and O'Neill's CV wouldn't begin to read as it does if he hadn't added to some of the Clough style more than a little of his own substance.

If his personal circumstances had been different, he might well already have been installed at a higher Premiership level - Liverpool seemed like a probable destination when his Celtic completely outplayed Gérard Houllier's side after earlier sweeping by a Blackburn team which appeared to be taking some good shape under Graeme Souness, and O'Neill has long seemed a potential successor to Ferguson - but fate dictated Villa Park, a place which for some time has been located around football's ground zero.

No longer, though. If the big bucks indeed kick in, you have to fancy O'Neill will soon enough be fighting on English football's highest ground. Meanwhile, Villa are 50-1 for the FA Cup. Now, suddenly, that's intriguing.

Neville cannot defend Rooney's red mist

Hearts may be aflutter at Old Trafford over the possibility of signing English football's latest heartthrob, Owen Hargreaves, but there is an even greater priority.

It lies in getting to grips with the discipline of Wayne Rooney. It was catastrophically flawed in the World Cup and it is scarcely served by the latest outpouring of his club captain Gary Neville.

Whether or not Rooney was harshly treated in his dismissal from a pre-season tournament in the Netherlands is not really the point. Rooney was sent off, at the very least for an unwise demeanour, and now has to serve another ban - at precisely the time United most need him as they seek to make some impact on a new season in which they have never felt so much pressure to lift their performance.

Still undaunted, Neville is yelling from the trenches that the Football Association is terribly wrong to uphold the decision of the Dutch FA.

Neville said: "The decision is absolutely shocking. In this country we don't look after our own. But to be honest I don't expect anything else. We seem to shoot our own. Wayne and Paul [Scholes] are two players people want to see play football. The FA have to deal with procedures coming over from the Dutch FA - why they just don't throw it in the bin, I don't know."

At such times it is not so hard to remember that Neville once argued for an England team strike when his club team-mate Rio Ferdinand was suspended for failing to take a drugs test. Neville was on the field when Rooney had his brainstorm in England's most important match for four years in Gelsenkirchen a few weeks ago. Yet in a week in which there were some hopeful signs that a new England was prepared to embrace new levels of truth and responsibility, Neville's latest reaction is astounding. He is supposed to be an old head - not an empty one.

Today's heroes must learn how to play by Rules

In the vast warehouse of what we sometimes lightly describe as football literature, precious little space, we can guess, has been allocated to a small, pocket-sized offering written by a combination of Sir Bobby Charlton, Lord Melvyn Bragg and the old guys who sat down to formulate the way we play football 143 years ago.

Published by Oxford's Bodleian Library, the Rules of Association Football has a foreword by Charlton and an introduction by Bragg.

Culture icon Bragg was invited to offer his thoughts after nominating the first compilation of football rules in his work, 12 Books That Changed the World, Charlton because as a young player he read the rules with his eyes and embraced them with his heart.

Today's relevance is that a new Premiership season kicks off under a vast pall of anguish that never before have the laws - and the spirit - of the game been so flagrantly ignored.

Writes Charlton: "So much change has occurred that sometimes I think we are getting away from what the 13 original laws assume, that to play football all you need is honesty, courage and skill. This publication reminds us that the original rules of Association Football are the building blocks of the game. I am proud that England devised these laws and that as a result football has spread around the world as it has. We should not be shy of this achievement but celebrate our involvement and all that it means. We should also recognise that the rules do not simply make it possible to play football; they embody the spirit and the heritage of our game."

Lord Bragg says: "You can only wonder again at the impact of a book, and such a small book, a book of rules put together in a pub by a dozen English gentlemen enthusiasts in 1863."

We can only hope the peace of those good men is not disturbed too severely today.

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