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O'Neill's reputation on the line

Last season proved to be something of a dead-rubber for Aston Villa fans as the club spent what turned out to be a transitional term planning for the 2007/08 season. But after a campaign of consolidation it is now time to deliver.

There is a quiet revolution taking place at Villa Park and the 2006/07 season saw the end of 'Deadly' Doug Ellis' unappreciated stranglehold as American tycoon Randy Lerner breezed into town with fists full of dollars.

Highly-rated manager Martin O'Neill soon followed to replace David O'Leary, but unfortunately his appointment wasn't completed until August 5, leaving barely enough time for the former Celtic boss to shoe-horn in the permanent transfer of Stylian Petrov from the Glasgow club, along with short-term deals for fellow old-Bhoys Chris Sutton and Didier Magath.

O'Neill began the season with O'Leary's players but brought organisation and a renewed feel-good factor that contributed to a relatively momentous start to the season. Villa went on an eleven game unbeaten run, but after Christmas the threadbare nature of the squad began to show.

Despite bringing in target-man John Carew, England U21 international Ashley Young and another former Celtic player Shaun Maloney in January, Villa had a poor end to the season and after being dumped out of the cup by Manchester United the West Midlands club slumped to a bottom-half finish in the league.

This year O'Neill's reputation will be under close scrutiny as expectations have been raised; mediocrity will no longer do for Aston Villa.

The fans will expect their club to move towards the high goals that O'Neill has achieved at his former clubs.

The Northern Irishman became a household name after earning promotion to the top-flight with Leicester City in 1995 and the following year O'Neill enhanced his reputation by not only keeping the club in the top flight, but winning the League Cup as well.

Continuing his revolution at Filbert Street, the Irishman took the club to the League Cup Final again in 1999, losing out to Tottenham, but returning to win the Cup again in 2000.

In his first season at Celtic O'Neill delivered the treble. The League, League Cup and Scottish Cup (the equivalent to the FA Cup) were all given a new home at Parkhead and O'Neill was made an instant hero.

A second League victory came in O'Neill's next season and the following term he guided Celtic to the UEFA Cup Final where they were beaten in extra time by Jose Mourinho's FC Porto side.

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After a period out of football to take care of his ill wife - during which he was courted for the England job - O'Neill returned to football with Aston Villa in 2006. Now with a season of acclimatisation under his belt he has a huge, and deserved, reputation to keep intact.

Villa fans may not be expecting to win any silverware, well maybe the League Cup is a possibility, this term but the buzz word around Villa Park will undoubtedly be 'improvement'. The minimum target being banded around the midland's club's message boards is a top eight finish.

During the summer O'Neill added England U21 captain Nigel Reo-Coker and West Ham team-mate Marlon Harewood to his squad and the Northern Irishman will have to use all of his famed skill for eeking-out every ounce of quality from his players to get the best out of a duo who have a point to prove.

Reo-Coker was a talisman for his former club West Ham United during their first season in the Premiership. The all action midfielder led the club to an FA Cup final and a top half of the table finish, while receiving praise for his commanding performances in the centre of the park, before falling from grace.

He attracted interest from Arsenal and Manchester United in the summer but the midfielder's form slumped at the beginning of the 2006/07 season as West Ham suffered from a relegation battle and ongoing talks over a takeover.

He was singled out by some fans as the main culprit for the club's slump, somewhat unfairly, and the hero of the promotion season became the villain of Green Street. But if O'Neill can get the 22-year-old back to his best for this term he can become a huge driving force in the Aston Villa midfield and the £8.5million transfer fee may yet look like a bargain.

Harewood on the other hand is perhaps the ultimate confidence player and will test O'Neill's varied man-management skills to the maximum. When playing with assurance Harewood is a physical and potent striker, as highlighted by his 14 league goals for the Hammers during the 2005/06 Premiership campaign.

However, a loss of confidence the following season, mainly due to the form of Bobby Zamora and the arrival of Carlos Tevez, resulted in only three league goals and his exit from Upton Park. At the peak of his powers Harewood is a formidable striker but it is up to the Villa manager to get him there.

O'Neill has already proven he can extract the maximum from his players during his time at Leicester City and Celtic and he must do so again if he is to bring success to Villa Park.

He reinvigorated the careers of Gareth Barry and Olof Mellberg last term and, if he can repeat his success with the new arrivals, Villa can look forward to season with a solid spine running through the team and a comparatively successful campaign.

  • Any comments? Email Dominic Raynor