Two and a half years ago it was possible to make one of the most outlandish statements in the history of English football. You could say, without fear of being hauled off by the men in the white coats, that suddenly you envied the supporters of Aston Villa. All it had taken was the appointment of Martin O'Neill.
Now, at the dawn of the sports year that follows one that has left us with the glorious suspicion that it may have been the best we are ever likely to know, the sentiment must surely be invested with even stronger conviction.
What odds now against O'Neill proving himself the football man of 2009? They have decreased dramatically in the last few weeks and for the very best of reasons.
O'Neill's young team, in which Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young have confirmed their credentials as superb home-grown injections into the Premier League's star cast list and Gareth Barry is reminding everybody why his manager fought so hard against the Liverpool move for a man who represented so many of his core values, may not yet be quite ready to take the prize away from one of the top four they have gatecrashed with increasing facility and confidence.
But what they have already achieved – and promise to augment so strongly in the next few months – is vindication of the belief that in the right hands a team can challenge seriously without the underpinning of vast resources.
Arsène Wenger's attempt to make the same point has rarely looked so optimistic as the leaders Liverpool anticipate their weightiest challenge from Manchester United and a currently indecisive Chelsea. It means that O'Neill's methods, the certainty of his approach, are not only guiding his club into a position which would have amounted to fantasy when he first agreed to return to the game, they are also reimposing some of the oldest and most enduring truths about the shaping of a successful football club.
You do not do it, necessarily, with an open-ended budget and the pursuit of star appeal in the manager's office. The point of O'Neill, as it with Everton's David Moyes, is that you put your trust in a manager of proven ability – and then let him manage. Because if he doesn't, who does? For the most compelling reasons, directors of football have fallen out of fashion, of course, and we know from the Jose Mourinho's days at Chelsea, and maybe we will learn again at Manchester City, what happens when signings come in from above.
That O'Neill, with his unswerving blueprint, now occupies such high ground in the English game can, in its emerging way, surely be coupled with the impact of Fabio Capello as England manager.
Both have brought strength to the weakest areas of the English way of thinking about the game. Capello has brought a discipline and an unflinching belief in the need to educate even the most celebrated members of the national team, while O'Neill has made a mockery of his own failure to impress the Football Association at the time of the appointment of Steve McClaren.
O'Neill was said to have "interviewed" badly. While Big Sam Allardyce arrived at Soho Square with computers filled with coaching data, O'Neill was dismissive of suggestions that apart from leading England back to the front rank of football nations he might also oversee the nation's entire coaching system. O'Neill's reaction could not have been more basic. He said that making England a team again was a big enough job for any in football. His strength was to work and shape players, to give them a sense of his purpose and their best way of operating.
Again, he has proved that capacity at Villa to a remarkable degree and in many ways he represents some of the best hopes of English football as it approaches a period of inevitable uncertainty.
Meanwhile, of course, there is the more immediate dispute between Rafael Benitez, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Can Benitez finally release his powerful squad into a coherent and sustained drive for the title that has been so elusive for so long? No doubt the prospects have rarely been better, or certainly were before Steven Gerrard's misadventure in a Southport bar in the small hours of last Monday morning, and there is a growing conviction that indeed this may be Liverpool's year.
However, it is not hard to understand the passion with which the normally aloof manager has poured into the defence of his embattled superstar. However you rate Benitez, whether you believe he is approaching the climactic stages of a five-year master plan, or that it is more than coincidence that Liverpool have found their most expressive football since their manager has, because of his kidney stones problem, necessarily relaxed his iron grip on every phase of their performance, there is no doubt that his dependence on Gerrard's force has never been so great.
With Benitez it has long been a case of paying your money and taking your choice between a football technocrat-control freak or one of the game's true visionaries.
It is not the least intriguing of the new year's possibilities. But then nor are Ferguson's chances of again engendering in Cristiano Ronaldo the kind of largely undistracted momentum which made him last season's most vital contributor. Sooner or later the master of Old Trafford will have to weigh the value of extraordinary talent – and the oppressive sense that Ronaldo is too often at war with himself and an environment of which he has, essentially, tired.
Scolari? Increasingly he looks disconcerted by more than the kidney stones that have also been bedevilling his Liverpool rival. When Chelsea lost to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, it was as though the big man was shedding lustre before your eyes. The man who loomed so large over Sven Goran Eriksson, who came to England with the sense that he had the knack of growing bigger than any situation in which he found himself, simply cannot allow himself – or his team – to dwindle any further. That, you have to believe, would make a straight fight between Ferguson and Benitez, one that, basic instinct still insists, would see the former triumph yet again.
And where does this all leave Wenger? No doubt at his most vulnerable point since his arrival at Highbury, not just as the hope of Arsenal but all those who believe that beauty and success can sometimes be the most compatible of bedfellows. So why don't all of us consign him, like 2008, to a glorious past and a unsustainable future? Maybe because we need to believe in the finest possibilities of the game he has so often enhanced so beautifully. Maybe it is because, like him, we need our dreams.
Beyond England's shores, there is not much question about the most uplifting dream of all. It is surely the possibility of Barcelona, under their unherald coach Pep Guardiola and inspired by the sublime Lionel Messi, making a Champions League triumph that will go straight into the annals of great European football and, it is not beyond the realms of all reason, in the company of, well, yes Arsenal.
Of course, the summer is set aside for the possibility that England will do what they did four years ago and win the Ashes, this time against an irreparably damaged Australians. It is a thought encouraged by the triumphs of India and South Africa over what used to be arguably the greatest team we have seen.
But such optimism needs the tightest rein. England, after some alarming moments, made the right decision in returning to India, where they acquitted themselves with unexpected resolve. But it is still idle to pretend that they are not beset by some endemic weaknesses, one of which includes the psychologically worrying campaign from within to return Michael Vaughan to a squad that he left, by his own admission, in complete disarray.
Unless they are not to be ambushed by a resurrected Australia, England still need to be a lot harder on themselves and in their understanding of what it takes to operate at the highest level of their sport.
Back in English football it is not a deficiency likely to be permitted at Villa Park. Martin O'Neill may not yet have all the means to deliver ultimate success, but he brings to the new year the edge that will always provide its greatest thrust. It is, above all, why he could so easily prove sport's man of the infant year.Reuse content