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Aston Villa Set for Turbulent Summer as Martin O’Neill and Randy Lerner Prepare for Battle

COS contributor Luke Harrison delves into behind the scenes tug of war between Villa Park’s manager and owner.

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Aston Villa v Everton 2009/10

Martin O’Neill’s future at Villa is fast becoming a merry go round. O’Neill himself has done nothing to squash one way or another rumours that he may be leaving Villa this summer with his comments in the press over recent weeks. Comments that will have big clubs watching like hawks as the developments unfold, praying on Villa’s young talent.
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O’Neill, 58, is at the stage of his career now where he too feels it may be time a one of England’s big, big clubs swallows him up.
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The story unfolds in January, O’Neill, frustrated with the perception of Villa being ‘the nearly men’ as they attemp to break the top four. He turned to Lerner to request funds to strength his squad for the second half of the season. Lerner, paranoid by the state of the global economy declined, and the raw left tension between the two that is still very much there four months on.
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Comments made by O’Neill in the wake of the demolition by Chelsea about his own future have been revisited on several occasions since but with a contracting and confusing reoccurrences. Added to this is the spilt in the Villa supporters view on O’Neill’s managing of the club. Since his decision to field a under strength line up in last season’s UEFA Cup defeat in the 2nd leg against CSKA Moscow and the decline in the league that followed, half of the Villa faithful feels O’Neill has had enough time and with the £120 million he has spent enough money to have progressed further.
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The truth is unlike Real Madrid, Man. City and clubs of that sort that just chuck money at a problem, Villa need to spend to make the progression these fans want. O’Neill sees that but didn’t get the funding in January and isn’t likely to get much more in the summer either.
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Free transfers and more rabbits being pulled out of hats like the signing of James Collins and Richard Dunne will be needed this summer but you don’t expect Joe Cole to be booking a moving van to the Midlands do you? What’s worst is Villa need to sell before they go into the transfer market with limit funds.
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The money Lerner has invested has mostly been his own, unlike fellow Americans at Old Trafford. He wants to trim down some of the outgoings that have seen Villa make a £46 million loss in the last year. A number of staff in various departments at the club have been laid off. The American football owner once ripped up a sponsorship contract with a radio station after it broadcast a report that he felt slighted his family, he is not a man to cross and tension between him and O’Neill have reached the stage that he has even signalled out Mark Hughes as a possible replacement.
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All this has left a bullish O’Neill frustrated. He feels he has earned the right to have one more season to try to crack the top four and bring silverware to Villa Park. But if he feels Lerner doesn’t share his ambition, he wont stay around.
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As speculation mounts Benitez will leave Anifield this summer, O’Neill will have one eye on the situation relishing the chance to take over at one of England’s biggest clubs. He also would consider himself a front runner for the United job when Ferguson steps down, when ever that may be.
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With Lerner’s financial paranoia, clubs will be looking to test the American with bids for Villa’s top stars.
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Manchester United see Milner as having the potential to follow in the foot steps of Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. With Ferguson needing to freshen his squad this summer, especially in the midfield department with the aging Scholes and the decline in the form of Carrick and Anderson this season, a £15 million bid may temp Lerner. £20 million though may be more realistic. Their neighbours also would express an interest in the young English man.
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Agbonlahor has long been of interest to Arsenal. His pace has been something that has been lacking in the Gunner’s side since Henry left and with Wenger having money to spend this summer, again £15- £20 million could tempt Villa who would see the whole amount as profit having brought him through their youth system.
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Ashley Young is another who has attracted interest from all of England’s top clubs and even as far as the big two in Spain. Being able to operate on both wings will make him an attractive option. Villa are likely to hold out for £25 million having spent £9.75 million plus add on’s from Watford.
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Despite only being there less than a year Harry Rednapp would be tempted again to bid for Stuart Downing if available, especially with Bale being linked with United.
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O’Neill has stated none of the above players have hinted at a move or would be prepared to sell them. ‘I would love to keep players here as long as possible’ he said before the Hull game. A year ago though, would those Villa players have had a better case for England’s World Cup squad? Moves to bigger club may be tempting for these players before 2014.
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If Villa don’t make 4th and to be fair they only have a outside chance anyway, it might not be O’Neill who has the final decision if a bid comes in for one of the above. With the tension in the relationship between manager and owner as it is, any of the above bids could be the final straw for the former Nottingham Forest player and end his Villa career if these bids are accepted.
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O’Neill believes his team can go the places he wants to go, whether or not he believes Lerner can match his ambition remains to be seen. Villa need to spend to do this and O’Neill doesn’t see selling his star players as a way to do fund this.

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