O'Neill: 'Player power has gone mad'

When Martin O'Neill was ploughing through the Nottingham Forest midfield, the club went from the middle of the old Second Division to winning the European Cup in three seasons. Between 1974 and 1982, O'Neill's current club, Aston Villa, made the same giant leap. Yet in the wonderful world of the Premier League these days, the ambition for any promoted club is purely and simply to avoid relegation. For even a Villa, an Everton or a Tottenham, despite all being ever-present for the League's 17 seasons, the great achievement would be merely to break into the top four places.

To admit it cannot be done would be the worst sort of defeatism for that trio, so it was no surprise to listen to O'Neill, a romantic in the tradition of his fellow Ulsterman Danny Blanchflower, committing Villa to a shot at glory this season. Realistically, however, he knows just how tough a task that will be.

"It's a less level playing field than a few years ago," he said. "Nottingham Forest were the first club to buy a £1 million player [Trevor Francis], the first to pay top money for a goal-keeper in Peter Shilton, and you had a chance at that stage. Those days are definitely changed.

"If I didn't think we could do it, I don't think there is any point in hanging around, I really don't. I think it's difficult but I don't think it's impossible."

The difficulty is enhanced, as Tottenham have also found, by having to fight off top-four predators wanting to sign players such as Robbie Keane, Dimitar Berbatov and Villa's Gareth Barry. Having claimed victory once in the wearisome saga of Barry's possible move to Liverpool, then been forced to backtrack, O'Neill is reluctant to commit himself again. What he will say, with some force, is that the balance of power between clubs and players has swung too far: "Players are in control and it's crazy. In our day we yearned for a halfway house, but it's gone miles in the other direction and I don't think that's right. A contract's a contract and it should be worth something at some stage."

In the meantime, Villa have concentrated on bolstering a defence that leaked 51 goals last season, signing a fine goal-keeper in Brad Friedel, two new full-backs and now the Rangers centre-back Carlos Cuellar for £7.8m. "We operated with a very small squad last year," O'Neill said. "Regardless of what happened with Gareth we would still be looking to address that. We want desperately to get into the group stages of the Uefa Cup and that would necessitate more games if we were lucky enough to make it." Thursday night's 4-1 romp in Iceland suggests a Uefa Cup run is on the cards, and after reaching the 2003 final with Celtic, O'Neill knows all about the distractions that will bring. Today's opponents, Manchester City, beaten at home in their first leg on Thursday, would like the same chance, although they seem flakier both on and off the field.

If Barry, who played and scored in Iceland, commands particular attention today, Villa Park will also keep an amused eye on O'Neill's theatrical touchline responses in the light of all those good resolutions football folk are making about showing greater respect to opponents and officials. "It's a great initiative in the sense that I don't think anybody wanted to see the excesses of, for instance, a referee being chased round the pitch by half a dozen irate players," he said. "This shouldn't be from grassroots level up, it should be from the top down, because we're supposed to be some sort of role models.

"I'm more concerned selfishly about myself. I'm signing up to something that I hope I'm going to abide by. There's that little bit of banter you have with the linesman who's just flagged offside for the 17th time when you think he's wrong. But in essence, I'm genuinely hoping it works."

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