O'Neill puts panache on priority list

Arrival of manager most clubs would crave promises exciting times ahead after the turmoil
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The Independent Football

He makes an unlikely Mr Motivator, this character coveted by just about every club in the land, as he shuffles in diffidently, clad in dark designer suit and grey tie. His head is lowered initially; he is seemingly reluctant to raise those bespectacled features to the cameras and in that studious, intense manner of his appears slightly embarrassed by the whole affair.

As Aston Villa chairman - yes, still Villa chairman, despite predictions to the contrary, although he claims that takeover talks are "ongoing" - Doug Ellis acclaims his prized acquisition, but the man beside him would not immediately strike the uninitiated as a messianic figure. Indeed, he could be a local solicitor who had wandered in off the street en route to a spot of conveyancing.

Of course, Martin O'Neill, had he utilised his talents differently, could well have turned out to be rather more that that. He might now be practising as a hotshot lawyer if an affinity with a football and the fact that he possessed the brain to use this talent wisely had not transformed his career expectations all those years ago in Belfast.

In recent months, as different vacancies with which he had been associated were seized by others, there was just a suspicion that life had perhaps more to offer the former Northern Ireland international than team talks and tactic boards. But a 15-month hiatus to spend time with his wife, Geraldine, who is fighting cancer, has regenerated his desire for the occupation which has been an obsession since he set out as manager of Grantham Town in 1987.

"I missed the game," declares O'Neill. "I missed it from the day I said I wasn't going to be managing Celtic any more. It's been 15 months. At times, it's been like 15 years. That first summer was OK; but last season, when the season kicked off again I really did miss it. I missed the interraction with players on a day-to-day basis, but match days are what you'd miss most."

The man who made his name as a midfielder at Nottingham Forest predictably arrives with his familiar band of merry men: "Little John" (Robertson, his assistant) and Steve "Will Scarlett" Walford (coach). After some 1,000 diehards have hailed him at Villa Park, O'Neill professes himself overwhelmed, and Ellis estimates that a managerial arrival, and he's had a few, has not engendered so much enthusiasm since the coming of Tommy Docherty or "Big Ron" Atkinson.

A female reporter, of relatively tender years, suggests that the challenge of the Premiership could be a considerable contrast to the SPL. "You're probably too young to remember this," O'Neill responds in a tone that is charming rather than patronising, "but I was here before a number of years ago [as manager of Leic-ester, who were promoted to the élite in 1996], so I've a fair idea what the Premiership is about. The game has probably changed a little bit, and I'll have to adjust to that."

I put it to him that during his five years in Scotland, the English Premiershp has changed more than "a bit". "Well, [Roman] Abramovich has completely changed the game," he says. "He's moved the goalposts somewhat."

Ellis interrupts, as he is liable to do: "No one can compete with Abramovich's millions; no one, not Manchester United, Ars-enal, Liverpool, but that doesn't mean to say we can't beat them."

Early evidence of the pressure that the chairman brings to the job? "The chairman's right," O'Neill says. "The alternative is rather unpleasant, isn't it? You just pack in and go home."

Earlier, O'Neill had insisted, when asked about his wife's illness, that he didn't want any "sympathetic votes". However, he does concede: "I don't think my outlook on football has changed at all, but in terms of life I have a different perspective than I had maybe a couple of years ago."

You have different priorities? "Absolutely," he agrees. Then he reconsiders. "Hey, but don't get me wrong. Football's of vital consequence to me. Look, every single person in this room today has had problems to overcome. I don't have a monopoly on these things. I will be judged on winning football games and bringing some decent days back to Villa. That's what I want to do, with a bit of panache and a bit of excitement."

He is asked if he had sought Geraldine's approval for this return to work. "She will tell you that I very seldom ask her anything," he says. "She just has to follow. I'm actually one of the very few men in this life who's not under the thumb. I'm stronger than that. And I'd say that if she was here now."

He adds, in a more serious tone, that his wife's condition is "a concern, absolutely. But thankfully things are not so bad."

Villa's first Premiership game under O'Neill is Arsenal away in two weeks' time. "That's some baptism," he says, before depart-ing to join up with the players he has inherited from David O'Leary, who have three friendlies, in Holland and Germany, to demonstrate their quality. "There is only two weeks, which is not a great deal of time, but you're dealt with that and get on with it."

He adds: "There's nothing ideal about life. I take ownership of the football club today, in terms of the team, and in a couple of months' time whatever position we find ourselves in, nobody will care less about how much time there was to prepare them. Whatever happens is on my head. I take full responsibility."

And for that, a sizeable chunk of the West Midlands is grateful.

'Deadly' men: Brief history of Villa bosses

TOMMY DOCHERTY 1968-70: Sacked while the club were struggling at the bottom of the then Second Division.

VIC CROWE 1970-74: Unable to stop relegation to the Third Division but led them back up and reached the League Cup final. Sacked after failing to win promotion to the First Division.

RON SAUNDERS 1974-82: Ellis appointed Saunders but then stepped down in 1975. Saunders won the First Division in 1981 but left after falling out with a different chairman.

TONY BARTON 1982-84: Ellis returned in 1982 with Barton as manager and the club as European champions. Barton was sacked two years later after finishing 10th.

GRAHAM TURNER (1984-86): Sacked after two bottom-half finishes.

BILLY McNEILL (1986-87): Resigned after relegation to the Second Division.

GRAHAM TAYLOR (1987-90): Left to manage England after being promoted, then coming second in the First Division.

JOZEF VENGLOS (1990-91, above): Sacked after finishing two places above relegation.

RON ATKINSON (1991-94): Sacked in a relegation battle after winning a League Cup.

BRIAN LITTLE (1994-98): Won the League Cup and came fourth in the Premiership but resigned after form dipped.

JOHN GREGORY (1998-2002): Led Villa to the FA Cup final but resigned while mid-table.

GRAHAM TAYLOR (2002-03): Resigned after a disappointing second spell in charge.

DAVID O'LEARY (2003-06): "Amicable parting of the ways" after an investigation into a statement, allegedly devised by the players, criticising the club. He finished 16th in 2006, with a best of sixth two years earlier.