Martin O'Neill's resignation as Aston Villa manager was a bolt from the claret and blue. Yet the bigger surprise, given the dark hints he made over his commitment to the club last spring and the growing cracks in his once-cosy relationship with American owner Randy Lerner, is his decision to leave just five days before Villa launch what would have been his fifth season in charge.
O'Neill spoke ominously last March, in between Villa's dual Wembley disappointments in the Carling Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals, about assessing his "options" at the end of his latest 12-month rolling contract. "O'Neill quits Villa" stories soon spread, but he pulled back from his veiled threat and eventually informed Lerner he would be staying.
Now, however, a summer riddled with reports of the imminent departures of his two most prized assets, James Milner and Ashley Young, and marked by a lack of progress in the pursuit of his own transfer targets, has clearly changed O'Neill's mindset.
Milner, it appears, is intent on joining Manchester City, while Tottenham lead a posse of suitors for Young. To borrow one of Kevin Keegan's bons mots about management, this wasn't in the brochure when the Northern Irishman was lured out of self-imposed exile from the game in 2006.
O'Neill had taken a sabbatical after leaving Celtic in order to care for his wife Geraldine, who was recovering from cancer. The offer from Villa was, officially, the parting gift to the club from "Deadly" Doug Ellis, who was about to sell up to Lerner for £62.6m. A New Yorker from Brooklyn, the credit-card tycoon and owner of the Cleveland Browns American football team had developed an affection for Villa while studying law at Clare College, Cambridge, at the time in the early 1980s when the European Cup adorned the Villa Park trophy room.
Their rapport was instant. O'Neill has more than a passing interest in gridiron, giving him a connection with Lerner, and the combination of two thrusting, ambitious individuals at the helm of a club that had been marking time under Ellis, and a succession of managers, allowed supporters to believe Villa could again break into the top four of the Premier League for the first time since Brian Little's tenure a decade earlier.
O'Neill became, and remained, arguably the most popular manager in Villa's history. At every match, the Holte End would roar out his name as if savouring the fact that the club was at last in the hands of someone who shared their perception of it as one of the English game's great traditional powers. After the drab reign of David O'Leary, who had dared to describe the fans as "fickle", they revelled in O'Neill's evident desire to wear out the technical area with his determination to kick every ball, contest every tackle and celebrate Villa goals with Monty Panesar-style leaps.
O'Leary had been hamstrung by Ellis's reluctance to invest heavily in the squad. Lerner's millions were supposed to change the culture of the club and put Villa back among the contenders for a Champions League place, rather than leaving them among the next tier of clubs, or, as they had been increasingly prone to do, flirting with relegation.
New players arrived, including Milner from Newcastle for £12m and Young from Watford for £9.65m. Altogether, O'Neill spent £179m (£90m net) on personnel, and to some extent, the investment paid off. Villa have finished in sixth place for the past three seasons, returning to the European stage, and embarked on two domestic cup runs last season. In 2008-09, indeed, they looked set to displace Arsenal in the top four, only for their challenge to fizzle out amid muted complaints on fans' message boards that neither the hard-running playing style and what some critics characterised as the one-dimensional tactics favoured by O'Neill, nor his tendency to eschew squad rotation, was conducive to lasting the pace of a gruelling season.
Last spring, as they again failed to break through the "glass ceiling" to which Lerner repeatedly referred, and the search for O'Neill's first silverware with Villa hit another dead end, observers detected weariness in one of the game's outstanding motivators. He appeared more sensitive to criticism, declaring in one press briefing, "I must stand up for myself".
But when Lerner met the media in May, he insisted O'Neill would not be going to Liverpool or anywhere else. Intriguingly, when asked whether Villa would, or could, compete with Manchester City or even Spurs, he made it plain that "£30m players" were not "part of the process". Such recruits would have to be paid in a manner that might cause dressing-room disharmony. Besides, he added, with an admission that even billionaires are not immune to a global recession, "I can't afford it".
Lerner talked of the need for "patience" and his desire to "grow the club". His parting shot was that if he were "knocked down by a truck tomorrow" he would still have given Villa "four good years, or four reasonable years, or four decent years".
Now it appears that the promise of competence on the pitch, financial stability off it and all-round steady progress were not enough to satisfy O'Neill's burning ambition– especially if Milner and Young were to be sold against his wishes.
Bookies count the cost of shock exit
Bookmakers were caught out by Martin O'Neill's departure as Aston Villa manager yesterday after a flurry of bets on the timing of his exit. The odds about the Irishman going plunged from 8-1 to 8-11 in the hours leading up to the announcement and, just a few minutes before the news became public, one leading bookmaker suspended gambling.
A succession of three-figure bets on O'Neill leaving Villa Park were placed in the Leicester area and were sizeable enough to alert William Hill's suspicions by 2.30pm. At 4pm they closed the book and around 15 minutes later the club announced that they and their manager were parting company.
"Bitter experience tells us this sort of thing happens," said Graham Sharpe of William Hill. "Some might say it is insider trading but we are realistic."
The company has not seen such a dramatic fall in odds surrounding a manager since Sven Goran Eriksson was given the England job in 2001. The Swede dropped from 33-1 to 3-1 in 20 minutes and it is not the first time that O'Neill has been the centre of such a whirlwind. "We saw similar on O'Neill last season," said Sharpe. "This time the gamblers won."
Who's next at Villa Park? The main contenders
Bob Bradley Odds: 4-1
The 52-year-old has been increasingly linked with a move to England following an impressive spell in charge of the United States, including an unlikely win over Spain. Nationality could hold sway with Villa chairman Randy Lerner.
Martin Jol 4-1
The former Tottenham manager has impressed at Hamburg and Ajax, and almost joined Fulham last month as Roy Hodgson's replacement. The big Dutchman led Tottenham to two top five finishes and he has often spoken of a desire to return to England.
Alan Curbishley 11-2
Failure to land another job following his resignation from West Ham in 2008 remains something of a mystery, given his success with the Hammers and in 15 years at Charlton. Spent a single season at Villa Park in 1983-84.
Sven Goran Eriksson 11-2
Former England manager was linked with Fulham after his departure from Ivory Coast and would be keen to return to the Premier League. The 62-year-old Swede did a good job in his single season with Manchester City and would fit the bill of a big-name appointment.
Slaven Bilic 6-1
Croatia manager has won many admirers, particularly during a qualification campaign for Euro 2008 which included two wins over England. Could not repeat that success but remains well thought of after spells with West Ham and Everton.
Kevin MacDonald 8-1
The 49-year-old Scotsman has been named as caretaker manager after success with Villa's reserve side, leading them to the Youth Cup final last season. Should the former Liverpool midfielder begin well he could been handed the reigns on a more permanent basis.
Dave Jones 9-1
Still awaiting another chance in the top flight after varying degrees of fortune with Southampton and Wolves. The 53-year-old took Cardiff to the FA Cup final in 2008 and just missed out on promotion with the Bluebirds last season, losing to Blackpool in play-off final.
Gareth Southgate 14-1
Spent six years at Villa Park and the former England defender has a good standing in the game. Touted as one of England's brightest young managers at Middlesbrough, but Premier League relegation led to his eventual sacking.