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Martin O'Neill takes leading role in Aston Villa's passion play

14 March 2009 05:22
Aston Villa v Tottenham HotspurKick-off: Sun Mar 15, 4.00pm; Villa Park, BirminghamTV: Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports HD1Radio: BBC Radio Five Live (second half only)

Well, Chappaquiddick is connected to Martha's Vineyard by Dike Bridge, where Kennedy lost control of his Oldsmobile after a party and plunged into Poucha Pond. His sole passenger, young Kopechne, drowned and the married Kennedy never convincingly explained why he had been unable to pull her from the sinking car.

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O'Neill wanted to know the depth of the water, how far Kennedy would have needed to swim to raise the alarm (which he didn't), and what the latest conspiracy theory was Stateside. Of current Premier League managers, probably only Sir Alex Ferguson can match O'Neill's incredible curiosity for life.

His desire for a full debrief on Chappaquiddick reflects the essence of O'Neill: his passion. Aston Villa's manager never does anything half-heartedly. A game of Trivial Pursuit? O'Neill cannot stomach losing. NFL on the telly? The 57-year-old will be glued to regular-season games, let alone the Super Bowl. The Hanratty case? O'Neill's an expert. JFK? O'Neill took Leicester City on tour to Dallas and charmed his way into the old Book Depository where the shots were supposedly fired from. Westerns? He knows them all, the good, the bad and the ugly ones.

If O'Neill ever entered Mastermind, he wouldn't struggle for specialist subjects. Above all, he is obsessed with football. Watch him on the touchline when Spurs visit Villa Park on Sunday, looking like he is auditioning for Riverdance as he tries to kick every ball, reach every header.

This passion is why his players so adore him, why Villa are ahead of schedule in chasing a Champions League spot and why O'Neill is spoken of as a potential successor to Ferguson at Manchester United and Fabio Capello with England. He galvanises players, imbues them with his hunger. The England international (at another club) who boasted to a prominent manager of being "made for life'' would have been brought down a peg or three by O'Neill.

One of the most thrilling sights this season has been Ashley Young in full flight. Villa's exciting winger had the potential to join the "too much, too young'' posse, those overpaid underachievers who silt up assorted Premier League dressing rooms. If he had signed for Spurs – Villa's opponents – Young's career could have stalled. Look at David Bentley, rich in wealth and footballing potential but seemingly drifting in the Spurs comfort zone. Harry Redknapp may yet shake Bentley into top-class life but the contrast with Villa is obvious. No preening can be found in O'Neill's dressing room.

As Bentley has slid out of England recognition, O'Neill's players have stormed into the breach, the charge led by Young and Gabby Agbonlahor. Throughout his managerial career, O'Neill has made good players better. Steve Guppy, a labourer while playing part-time for Wycombe Wanderers, eventually earned an England cap. O'Neill's assistants, John Robertson and Steve Walford, are hugely important but it is the manager's blend of motivation and tactical nous that drives players to deliver.

O'Neill won a European Cup at Nottingham Forest and some of Brian Clough's genius can be detected in his work. Occasionally in training, O'Neill will take two or three players off for shuttle runs. This is normally the preserve of the fitness instructor, not the manager, but O'Neill insists.

He stands by one set of cones, holding the stopwatch out, challenging his players to beat their best times. A few minutes later, sweating profusely, the players discover to their delight that they have gone a split-second faster than before. O'Neill's message is clear: you can always dig deeper.

Like Ferguson and Clough, O'Neill appreciates the importance of observation, of assessing players' body language. Naturally intelligent, this former student at Queen's University Belfast understands what makes each player tick. He knows their foibles, their family issues and a well-timed word lifts them even more. He makes everyone at the club feel good about their work. The laundry ladies fold the shirts more lovingly, the receptionist smiles more brightly and the centre-forward jumps an inch higher to meet a corner.

Like Stan Collymore. Under O'Neill at Leicester, the striker misbehaved on a visit to La Manga, setting off a fire-extinguisher. He received the mother, father and irate aunt of all rollockings from his manager. But during the dressing-down, O'Neill challenged Collymore to prove his worth. He responded by scoring a hat-trick in his next game. O'Neill, the master-motivator, the king of passion, had worked his magic again.

Game Zone

Touchline duels: Martin O'Neill v Harry RedknappRedknapp has often expressed his admiration for O'Neill's accomplishments, citing them as the model for Tottenham to emulate as they try to improve on this wretched season with a top-four finish next year. Both have regularly been praised as the finest home-grown managers and have both been linked to the England job.

Talking tacticsO'Neill, despite erratic form, is likely to keep faith with his tried-and-tested system of using pace on the flanks, as displayed by James Milner and Ashley Young to support Gabriel Agbonlahor as the lone striker. Redknapp enjoys the rare luxury of having no new injuries in his squad and is looking to retain Ledley King in central defence while persisting with Roman Pavlyuchenko and Darren Bent up front.

Key clash: Gareth Barry v Luka ModricOne of O'Neill's finest moments last summer was to keep Barry at Villa Park, but the England midfielder could meet his match in Modric, who has emerged as arguably the most creative and versatile playmaker in the Premier League.

 

Source: Telegraph