Boardroom panic fails man in black

O'Neill waiting in the wings as hapless Avram faces chop – but West Ham owners should look in the mirror

Having teams bunched so closely together at both the top and bottom of the Premier League makes life interesting for those who are mere observers, but all the more fraught for participants; above all, of course, for the managers who can end up paying with their jobs. Five teams are realistically chasing four provisional Champions' League places, and if Manchester City and Roberto Mancini or Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti miss out in May, the price could be a high one. Even worse, however, is the prospect of finishing in the bottom three places, which tends to cause panic in the boardrooms of the clubs concerned from about October onwards, culminating around now, when the transfer window remains open.

Hence the uncertain situation in which Avram Grant has found himself at West Ham for the past few months, regular leaks suggesting that he must win this match or the other to stay in his job until the next ultimatum. Frustratingly for those who wanted him out, his players have shown enough character from time to time to dig out important results when they mattered.

There was a home game against Wigan in November shamelessly billed as "save our season", which was won, followed immediately by a thumping of Manchester United to reach the Carling Cup semi-finals, in which West Ham now stand 90 minutes from Wembley with a 2-1 lead over Birmingham. The volatility in the lower reaches was emphasised when in the first two matches of this month they shot up to 15th place and back to the bottom again.

Since then rumours that the board members David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady wanted either Martin O'Neill or Sam Allardyce as manager have multiplied, to the extent that O'Neill was backed down from a handsome 20-1 on Thursday night to odds-on yesterday. If anything stopped them, other than the improved results from the end of November, it was the uncomfortable knowledge that Grant was their own appointment.

In June, the new regime, who had taken over four months earlier, sacked Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke when the season ended with West Ham's lowest points total in history. Given the pair's Chelsea connection, it was not quite the equivalent of shooting Bambi but it was a sufficiently hard-nosed decision – especially after Gold said they wanted to keep Zola – to necessitate finding the right replacement.

Grant predictably proved an honourable, hard-working manager with good football knowledge. David James, his goalkeeper in the beleaguered days at Portsmouth, recently described him as the one manager in his career "who turned the dressing room round". He would have done it in his own quiet way, for the Israeli is clearly not one of the great vocal motivators in the mould of, yes, O'Neill. With that naturally lugubrious, hangdog look and his unwise choice of attire, he echoes Johnny Cash: "Til things are brighter/I'm the man in black."

Improved results with a lucky, more colourful West Ham scarf have not brightened things sufficiently for the board, even if Gold appeared more supportive than Brady, who made public in her newspaper column that they refused to buy Steve Sidwell off Aston Villa as the manager wanted.

O'Neill has certainly been a loss to the game since walking out on Villa just before the start of the season, having discovered that his ambitions for the club were not matched by those of the owner, Randy Lerner. Villa's subsequent struggles under Gérard Houllier have hardly harmed his cause, and Premier League managers in distress have not been helped by the knowledge that he was available; had Kenny Dalglish not been such a spectre at Roy Hodgson's feast, for instance, O'Neill would have been a good fit for Liverpool. Three successive sixth places with Villa while bringing on a crop of young English players confirmed the reputation established in taking Leicester City from the old First Division to Europe, which was furthered in five successful years at Celtic before he left to care for his seriously ill wife.

There has been an upward trajectory to O'Neill's career from his earliest days in charge of Grantham Town and Shepshed Charterhouse, demonstrating that priceless managerial ability to take over a team and improve it. The slight surprise is that whereas the next step seemed likely to be one of the profession's prime jobs, another claret-and-blue club would be a move sideways.

London, and specifically the West Ham technical area, would be livelier places; which would hardly be a consolation to the unfortunate man in black.

O'Neill's life and times

March 1952 Born Northern Ireland.

August 1969 Joins Distillery.

September 1971 Scores goal against Barcelona in the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

October 1971 Moves to Nottingham Forest for £15,000. First of 64 caps for Northern Ireland.

May 1977 Helps Forest to promotion.

March 1978 League Cup final medal with victory over Liverpool.

May 1978 Wins League title.

March 1979 League Cup final victory over Southampton.

May 1979 Left out of European Cup final side as Forest beat Malmo.

May 1980 Wins European Cup final in victory over Hamburg.

February 1981 Moves to Norwich City for £250,000.

June 1981 Moves to Manchester City for £275,000.

January 1982 Back to Norwich for £150,000.

May 1982 Helps Norwich win promotion to top division.

June 1982 Captains Northern Ireland at World Cup finals in Spain.

December 1982 Receives MBE for services to football.

August 1983 Joins Notts County on free transfer.

March 1986 Retires with injury, ruling himself out of 1986 World Cup.

July 1987 Manager of Grantham Town in Southern League Midland Division.

July 1989 Joins Shepshed Chaterhouse (Northern Premier League)

September 1989 Leaves after 10 games to concentrate on selling insurance

July 1990 Joins Wycombe Wanderers

May 1991 Wycombe win FA Trophy

May 1993 Wycombe win FA Trophy and Conference, earning promotion to Football League

May 1994 Wycombe win promotion, beating Preston North End in play-off final at Wembley

June 1995 Joins Norwich City

December 1995 Leaves Norwich for Leicester City

May 1996 Takes Leicester to Premier League via promotion play-off win over Crystal Palace.

March 1997 Wins League Cup, to earn place in Uefa Cup.

March 1999 Loses League Cup final to Tottenham.

March 2000 Wins League Cup, beating Tranmere Rovers in final.

July 2000 Joins Celtic.

May 2001 Completes Treble of Scottish Premier League, Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup.

May 2002 Wins SPL with record total of 103 points.

September 2002 In Champions' League proper for first time.

May 2005 Leaves Celtic to look after seriously-ill wife.

August 2006 Joins Aston Villa.

February 2010 Loses League Cup final to Manchester United.

May 2010 Villa finish in sixth place in League for third season running.

August 2010 Resigns five days before start of new season after dispute with the Villa owner Randy Lerner.

January 2011 Reported to be replacing Avram Grant as West Ham manager.

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