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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?