Martin O'Neill, hero and Villan
As with most leagues, the English Premiership has seen its fair share of surprises this season. Take Messrs Mascherano and Tevez turning up at West Ham United, for example, or Stuart 'Psycho' Pearce bringing his daughter's cuddly toy into the Manchester City dugout for luck.
One might well add to this list the fact that it is not Liverpool, nor Tottenham Hotspur, that are the closest challengers to Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, but Aston Villa, a club described by its own captain as having spent the last few years "slowly going backwards". Then again, with Martin O'Neill at the Villans' helm, should we really be surprised?
The former Celtic and Leicester City manager would be the first to cringe at hearing himself described as possessing the 'managerial Midas touch', but it is no accident that he remains revered at each of the clubs at which he has held control. Schooled under the inimitable Brian Clough, with whom he helped Nottingham Forest win one European Cup final and then argued bitterly after being dropped for their second, O'Neill would be the first to admit that he could not, in all truth, be described as a coach.
The Irishman is instead your archetypal British-style manager, a man who admits to having "absolutely no idea what a director of football actually does" and who leaves the training ground to his assistants, Steve Walford and John Robertson. "He's from the old school of management like Cloughie," explains Everton's Alan Stubbs, who played under O'Neill at Celtic. "On the Thursday or Friday he bursts into life. His team talks are particularly good and you walk out of the dressing room ten feet taller after listening to him. For me, he's just the complete package as a manager."
Prior to his death, Clough himself petitioned passionately for this troublesome former pupil to be given the England job and earlier this year almost got his wish when O'Neill was interviewed as a potential successor to Sven-Goran Eriksson. As it was, a year and two months after ending what he described as "a love affair" with Celtic to look after his ill wife, the 54-year-old was finally tempted back into football, although eyebrows were raised that his chosen destination was Villa, a club in the midst of a complicated takeover battle.
The Irishman's very position hinged on its outcome - eventually a victory for US billionaire Randy Lerner - but although there was only time to acquire one player, Stilian Petrov, before the transfer window slammed shut, the same Villains who finished last season in 16th with the club's worst-ever Premiership points tally duly embarked on an unbeaten run that outlasted every other team in the country.
"Martin O'Neill is the saviour of this club, not me," is the verdict of Lerner, who also owns the Cleveland Browns NFL team. "He is fantastic. I still think getting him is the most exciting part of the story so far."
O'Neill himself is merely grateful that an improvement in his wife's condition has facilitated his return to this most precarious of professions, and in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he outlined his plans for restoring Villa's tarnished reputation at home and abroad.
FIFA.com: So Martin, how has it felt being back in the dugout after your year away?
Martin O'Neill: I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It all happened very quickly, of course, and I was plunged straight into it all with just a fortnight until we went to Arsenal for our opening match, so it was hectic. The whole thing felt a bit strange to be quite honest, and doubly so I suppose because we didn't know whose hands the club was going to be left in.
It was (former chairman) Doug Ellis who first approached me about the job, and although it appealed to me, I knew that some of the people interested in buying the club had their own man in mind to be manager, which was absolutely their prerogative. Fortunately, though, I was able to speak to Mr Lerner, who did want me in charge, although he was up front that talks with Mr Ellis were not progressing fantastically well and said to me: 'You go your own way on this one'.
It looked for a while as if [Lerner] wouldn't pursue it, in fact, but I took the decision to take the job regardless, just so that I could get to know the players before the season started, and fortunately in the end Mr Lerner's interest was revived. That is me three months into the job now and so far it has been brilliant - better than I could have hoped.
Coming into the job, and for all your success at Celtic and Leicester, was there any element of self-doubt that you might not have the same impact at Villa?
Oh, absolutely. I have a bit of confidence in my own ability, but I think there would be something wrong if you didn't have that fear going into a new club. I knew that nothing would be achieved overnight, that's for sure, and although I brought John and Steve with me along with a couple of the players who'd been with us at Celtic, I think it would have been foolish of us to assume that we would be able to recreate an atmosphere that might well have been unique. But it was always my intention to manage the club the way I see fit, and that meant doing things the same way I did them at Celtic and Leicester.
You never know how players will respond to you or whether deep down they will like you and, in the latter respect, I can't say I honestly care. But I knew they would enjoy working with John and Steve out on the training ground and I suppose I have faith in myself to get the most out of them when it came to matchdays. And that's been it. Little things change in this game, but you'll find the fundamentals of football stay roughly the same and, fortunately, the players' application has been absolutely terrific.
Do you feel the Premiership changed at all during your six years away and, if so, in what ways?
That's a difficult one. If you ask me that in 12 games' time, I'll probably have a better answer for you. Chelsea, of course, are the most obvious change - no-one could have foreseen what happened there - but although people talk about how difficult it is to punch into the top three, which of course it is, we all simply have to chip away and attempt to do just that.
Has spending a year out of the game given you a bit of time to take stock on your achievements at Celtic?
To be quite honest, the year flew by so quickly that I don't know that I really had time to take stock of anything. But it was an incredible few years, really brilliant, and my feelings about the football club itself will never change. It was a genuine honour and a privilege to be a small part of Celtic's history, and not only that, but to have played some part in restoring the club to a decent level.
I don't suppose there's any point in being self-effacing about it because I remember in my first season having to go to Luxembourg to pre-qualify for the UEFA Cup, which is now unthinkable. By the time we left, the fans had become used to Champions League nights against your Barcelonas and Bayern Munichs, and also to travelling all over Europe, which they did in fantastic numbers. That's the kind of company Celtic deserve to be in, and Celtic Park on European nights is a special place, it really is. I've said it before, the football club itself is fantastic, and with the fans, the history and everything attached, I think it has the potential to be the very best club in the world.
But you don't need me to tell you that a few things would need to change. In the SPL, you have these two giant monuments in Celtic and Rangers dominating the landscape, and although there has obviously long been talk of both clubs moving to the [English] Premiership, I just can't see that happening for the foreseeable future at least. It looked a possibility a few years back and you would still never rule it out, certainly in the longer term, but it doesn't really seem to be on the agenda at the moment. All I know is that Celtic is a special football club and one that would really flourish in this kind of environment.
After Celtic, was it important to go to another club with a bit of history and stature?
Well, this football club certainly has those things. Obviously it has been through some not-so-great times of late, but it's not all that long ago that the European Cup was here, and we definitely have the support base here in the Midlands. Being honest, other than a couple of League Cup wins, Villa have probably only really flirted with success over the last 20-odd years, but when we played Everton at the weekend, I discovered that it is the most-played fixture in the history of English football. That tells you a bit about the kind of stature this club has.
At the moment, what are your short-term and longer-term goals at Villa Park?
I suppose every manager has their dreams of a long-term masterplan, but these days you have to buy yourself some time and that means winning matches - and winning them quickly. Just look at Iain Dowie, sacked after 12 league games at Charlton - that's the way things are going.
In time, I definitely want to be challenging the really big teams and giving this football club a chance to compete properly for the top trophies. But my immediate goal is to win some football matches because only by doing that will I give myself the time to achieve all that I want here. It's a Catch-22 situation for managers when you're talking about short-term and long-term goals - you can't divorce one from the other - and seeing what happened to Iain this week has just brought that home.
Would it be fair to say that bringing European football back to Villa Park is a priority?
Well, in terms of this season I should say that we're still a million miles from achieving that. Ultimately, though, that is something we definitely want back here, particularly given the club's European history. It's all very well talking about 'restoring past glories', of course, but although the format has changed since Villa won the European Cup in 1982, the aim would certainly be to first of all qualify, and then to go in and be competitive. Otherwise, what's the point?