On Aug. 4, 2006, Martin O'Neill OBE was named the new manager at Aston Villa. The times before O'Neill and Lerner seem like a lifetime ago, and it's now unimaginable that the second city's biggest club would be in the position they now find themselves in.
"I am well aware of the history of this football club," said O'Neill. "Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long ways away, but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream."
Aston Villa's history is a long and storied one.
Former Aston Villa FC chairman William McGregor is credited with creating league football as we now know it. In 1881 Scotsman McGregor organised a meeting with England's other leading clubs, out of which was born the English Football League.
Aston Villa's more recent history is patchy at best. In 1982 Villa won their European Cup title, and a miserable quarter century followed.
The sale of Aston Villa to American billionaire Randy Lerner in 2006 was a watershed moment for Villa fans. No longer would their club be in the cold hands of octogenarian "Deadly" Doug Ellis. In his stead a young, progressive, and passionate billionaire stepped in, and the club was almost immediately transformed.
While Lerner took the club's off-field business into the 21st century, Martin O'Neill transformed Villa on the field.
“We swapped Milan Baros for John Carew and brought in Ashley Young for a lot of money," said O'Neill. "He has gone on to at least double his value. The two of them have been godsends.”
Villa's youth system has been productive for some years, and Doug Ellis must get credit for that. Local boy Gabriel Agbonlahor is the epitome of what a well-funded youth system can achieve, and adding Petrov, Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies, Young, and Carew to what was already a squad with great potential really seized the moment for O'Neill and his young Villa side.
This season Villa have, until recently, looked a threat to challenge for a place in the top four and a spot in next year's Champions League.
“The Champions League would be more realistic this time around than last season when we were talking about it," said Villa's former captain Gareth Barry. "And if we keep talking about it then we’ll find ourselves in line for a place."
“We’ll fancy ourselves but it’s a massive step as the top four has been the top four for a while now,” Barry said.
Villa look like the most likely candidates to challenge those teams for that coveted fourth spot in the Premier League, but there's still work to be done if they are to attain it.
With January around the corner and with it the re-opening of the transfer window, Lerner's deep pockets may well be called upon to strengthen the squad. With O'Neill's success in the past it seems likely to persuade the manager and chairman to once again dip into the market.
“One of the two or three best pieces of business we did was in January 2007. It has turned out brilliantly," O'Neill said.
Villa's 100 percent record in this season's UEFA Cup “group of death” proves they have the wherewithal to compete against Europe's elite. Back-to-back victories over Ajax and Slavia Prague put Villa in an optimum position to advance to the latter stages of this year's UEFA Cup.
A mouth-watering game against Bundesliga high-flyers Hamburg is up-coming for Villa in the UEFA Cup, and it's a test the Midlanders will surely relish.
In the words of Gareth Barry: “The buzz is back at Villa."
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