Sam Wallace: O'Neill feels chill of expectation after putting heat on the big four

Talking Football: A club that finishes fifth or sixth is vulnerable to losing its best players to the big four
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The Independent Football

Those whom the gods would destroy they first permit to qualify for the Europa League. Finishing just outside the big four is one of the most dangerous positions in the Premier League: lots of expectation and nowhere to go but down.

The latest manager to feel the chill of supporters' heightened expectation is Martin O'Neill whose Aston Villa team play Liverpool tonight. O'Neill is facing up to the reality that his success may just have given the Villa fans something dangerous. More dangerous than queuing one place in front of Joey Barton in a late-night kebab shop. More dangerous than failure. He has given them hope.

The hope that comes with two consecutive sixth-place finishes and an exciting young team of English footballers. Only success can beget hope, and that means any manager who takes his club to the brink of the top four can find himself in trouble if he is perceived to have taken a backward step. So now O'Neill reaps the discontent that has spread through the Villa fan community, across the internet message boards and the phone-ins.

O'Neill's problems do not just relate to the defeat to Wigan or Thursday's Europa League first-leg loss to Rapid Vienna. They date back to February when Villa took third place ahead of Chelsea and Arsenal and then tailed off badly. Since 26 February, O'Neill has won two league games in 14 and faces Liverpool tonight with some Villa fans wondering if he is the man for the job.

That's gratitude for you. With hope comes expectation and from expectation the modern football fan demands constant, unswerving progress. No matter that the top four is ring-fenced by Champions League money, a self-perpetuating cabal that only comes under threat when Manchester City spend more than £100m on transfers and heaven knows what on wages. The club, they say, must keep going forward.

Those disgruntled elements among the Villa support seem to have applied to their football club the famous theory Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer espouses on relationships in the film Annie Hall. A relationship, Alvy says, is like a shark. "It has to move forward constantly or it dies. And I think what we have on our hands here is a dead shark."

Yet pre-O'Neill the Villa shark spent long periods scarcely moving at all. Occasionally it went forward, sometimes it went backward and it rarely troubled any of the neighbouring sea life. It was not, in short, a very frightening shark. Not until O'Neill's side of Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and James Milner started getting results at grounds such as the Emirates last season.

It is a personal view that O'Neill is exactly the kind of manager a club like Villa should aspire to have: undaunted, original, interesting. He has lost his two best players – Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen – over the last seven months. He deserves time and understanding to see through his vision for the club.

O'Neill has tried to build his team in the traditional manner: modest acquisitions, the odd splurge and careful progress. His club is not immune to the kind of alarming slump that engulfed his team last season, any more than Everton whose anomalous 17th (2004) and 11th (2006) place finishes with David Moyes demonstrated the precariousness of life just outside the big four. Everton stuck with Moyes and were rewarded.

Of course O'Neill's record is not unblemished. He probably wishes he had not signed Marlon Harewood, Zat Knight and Wayne Routledge. Nicky Shorey and Nigel Reo-Coker have never seemed to have enjoyed his full confidence. Emile Heskey has not repaid it yet. But in Young, Stilian Petrov, John Carew and Milner he has some of the most astute signings of the last few seasons.

O'Neill might have had more money to spend than some of his predecessors but he has also had to contend with occupying the most difficult tier of the Premier League. Maintaining a team around fifth and sixth place is a thankless task. In the last six seasons, five teams other than Aston Villa have broken into the top six: Everton, Spurs, Blackburn, Bolton and Newcastle. Only Everton have done it more than twice.

A club that finishes fifth or sixth is extremely vulnerable to losing its best players to the big four. For instance, Tottenham lost Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United and – albeit temporarily – Robbie Keane to Liverpool. Craig Bellamy, who played in the 2005-06 Blackburn team that finished sixth, was bought by Liverpool. Bolton finished sixth in 2005 and bought Nicolas Anelka a year later. He was then poached by Chelsea.

The proximity to the big four brings with it a health risk, and now with City wielding equal spending power so that risk increases. Villa lost Barry to City and the same has happened with Everton and Joleon Lescott.

Here's backing O'Neill to emerge from this slump. He may even finish sixth again, which really should be the limit of his club's ambitions with City now spending like a big four team. Then, no doubt there will again be talk of him succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. And then those disgruntled Villa fans really will have something to moan about.

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