O'Neill takes it one step at a time

Villa manager combines passion and pragmatism as he returns to the fray in the Premiership
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If Martin O'Neill aspires to greatness with Aston Villa, he was offering no hostages to fortune as he looked ahead to his return to the Premiership at Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium today. Far from waxing lyrical about lofty European ambitions or one day emulating Brian Clough, he saw his task in more humble terms: to prove himself to the Villa public.

O'Neill, who last worked in England with Leicester City six years ago and spent 15 months out of the game nursing his sick wife before accepting the Villa job, was asked at his first pre-match media briefing whether it might be an advantage that the players would feel they had something to prove to the new manager. In a manner typical of the 54-year-old Northern Irishman, he turned the question on its head.

"I've got plenty to prove to myself and to the Aston Villa people, but I wouldn't want it any other way," O'Neill said. "After the commotion surrounding my arrival here, there's a period when people say, 'Let's see what you can do', and that's absolutely right. We're all going to be tested over the next few months. I just hope we're up for it. When I first came I said something semi-jokey, semi-serious about being petrified, but I'm actually really excited."

O'Neill has missed football while he helped his wife, Geraldine, battle against cancer, much as the game has been poorer for the absence of his distinctive blend of the cerebral and the manic. "I love football and there wasn't a day when I didn't give it some thought. It was never a case of 'I'm glad to be out of it', more one of 'Will I ever get back in?'"

The much-vilified Doug Ellis ensured that he did, and the octogenarian's parting gift to Villa has sent expectations soaring in the Midlands. Some supporters clearly see his appointment, and the prospect of a transfer war-chest from a new, possibly billionaire owner, as a guarantee of success. O'Neill knows that, ultimately, it will be all about the players.

The former Celtic manager was keen yesterday to bring the focus back from his presence in the technical area - given his antics, the grass in front of the visitors' dug-out should be the first part of Arsenal's new home to wear out - by insisting he was "a side issue in the whole event". That may be wishful thinking, though he will stand or fall by the efforts of his team, or rather the one he inherited from David O'Leary.

"It's a massive game and I want them to do themselves justice; play well, without fear; go for it and give everything they've got," he said. "If they can win, myself and John [Robertson, assistant manager] and Steve [Walford, coach] will happily take the reflected glory. For the forseeable future, I'm depending on these players for my livelihood."

He admitted that the match would have been as fraught as it was thrilling for him personally even if he were not in direct opposition to Arsène Wenger on an historic, dare-not-lose day for Arsenal and the overwhelming majority of a 60,000 crowd. "There's never been a game when I wasn't nervous. As a player I used to feel that if I didn't start well, Cloughie would take me off. It's the same as a manager. I don't sleep too well either - just a couple of hours here and there."

The high-anxiety formula certainly appears to work for O'Neill, who steered Celtic to a European final and a clutch of trophies after guiding unfashionable Leicester to four consecutive top-10 Premiership finishes. But Villa trailed in 16th under O'Leary, have not signed a single player over the summer and have worked with their new manager for barely a fortnight - hardly the best preparation for a fixture which they lost 5-0 in one of the final games at Highbury.

"Ideally it would have been great to postpone the season for a few weeks, but that's the way it goes," said O'Neill. "I wanted to come to this club and time was running out. So you go for it. I can understand the excitement because everything has been condensed into a couple of weeks. We'll probably get back to some sort of normality on 1 September after the transfer window has closed, but until then I expect it to be a bit of a madhouse. Having said that, there will be no excuses."

Besides, he argued, Villa's players should be as stimulated by the occasion and setting as Arsenal. "We can't be worried about what happened last time, or the fact that it's the first competitive match at the Emirates. I didn't just take this job because of where the opening game was. In fact I might have avoided it! Playing Premiership football - that's what should be inspiring, even contagious."

O'Neill railed against the assumption that an Arsenal win was a formality and that Villa's season would begin in earnest at home to Reading next Wednesday. "The moment you say that," he reflected, "you're planting the seed of the idea of being second best in the players' minds."

So what sort of side would Aston Villa be after he has started buying and selling and put his personal stamp on the squad? "I want excitement. I want my team to score goals. I want to play an expansive game. It may take a wee while, but I promise that's what I intend to do."

Wenger and, if fit, Thierry Henry, who made his debut against Leicester on the equivalent day seven years ago, stand poised to mar O'Neill's re-entry. He has high regard for both Frenchmen, describing the former as having presided over a "golden period" at Arsenal. While Villa's golden age lies in the mists of time, their new manager is nothing if not eager to set about updating the history books.

"From one o'clock until kick-off will probably go quite slowly," O'Neill predicted, "but from three onwards, we're in business."

The great trophy hunt Martin O'Neill's managerial career

* GRANTHAM TOWN After his playing career O'Neill began his time in football management here in 1987.

* SHEPSHED CHARTERHOUSE Subsequently enjoyed a brief stay here.


O'Neill took Wanderers into the Football League in 1993 following a bad-tempered and hard-fought campaign.


The Ulsterman resigned on a matter of principle before he could make an impact.


Joining during the 1995-96 season, he achieved great success, gaining promotion to the Premiership and winning the League Cup in 1997 and 2000.


Took over from the John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish team in 2000. Winning the domestic treble in his first season, overall he won three League titles, three Scottish Cups, and the Scottish League Cup.