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The Darren Bent debate: did O’Neill’s record warrant more cash?

23 January 2011

Should O'Neill have been given the £18 million his successor has spent on Darren Bent?

Darren Bent’s £18 million move from Sunderland to Aston Villa has provoked much debate and opinion, and even accusations of xenophobia from Villa boss Gerard Houllier.

The main focus of discussions however has centred on Randy Lerner and his strained relationship with former manager Martin O’Neill. It is believed O’Neill left the club in August last year because he felt he was being inadequately supported in the transfer window by Lerner, who supposedly encouraged a sell-to-buy policy.

Those that questioned why O’Neill wasn’t supported whilst Houllier was were quickly met with the response that the Northern Irishman spent millions in previous transfer windows with little recouped through sales. Here’s O’Neill’s spend during his four seasons at the club:

Season Total Bought Total Sold Net Total Key Purchase
2006/07 £17,150,000 £3,050,000 £14,100,000 Ashley Young (£9,650,000)
2007/08 £16,250,000 £10,000,000 £6,250,000 Nigel Reo-Coker (£7,500,000)
2008/09 £48,400,000 £3,100,000 £45,300,000 James Milner (£12,000,000)
2009/10 £35,050,000 £19,000,000 £16,050,000 Stewart Downing (£12,000,000)
Source: transferleague.co.uk

O’Neill spent significant amounts of money at Villa, but still made no progress with the club in terms of league finishes, something which presumably disappointed Lerner and eventually led to O’Neill’s abrupt departure. The 2008/09 season spend is particularly disappointing if you’re a Villa fan; Curtis Davies (£8m), Steven Sidwell (£5m), Luke Young (£5m), Nicky Shorey (£4m) and Emile Heskey (£3.5m) may have added to the squad’s depth, but have failed to be value for money at the club. The sales of Shaun Maloney and Wayne Routledge proved to be the only transfer revenue that season.

The obvious explanation therefore is that Lerner lost faith in O’Neill’s ability in the transfer market, and has now placed his faith in Houllier. Whether that faith is misplaced or not is another issue; Houllier wasn’t terribly successful at Liverpool but Bent’s debut goal against Man City may settle some doubts on that front at his new club.

An important question is did Martin O’Neill underachieve given the funds provided? Let’s not forget Villa had to keep up with the spending of Manchester City and Tottenham during the seasons in question, particularly in the second half of O’Neill’s reign.

The best way to analyse this is to look at Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era, a recent book by Paul Tomkins, Graeme Riley and Gary Fulcher. The book’s authors devised the Transfer Price Index (TPI) to put all transfers into current day prices, making the comparison of squads and teams over time easier. For instance, Alan Shearer may have cost Newcastle United £15 million in 1996, but in today’s money, taking into account the increase in transfer prices over time, this would equate to spending £39.7 million. From there the authors look at the cost of a team’s starting XI, and can compare it to a team’s final league position. On the whole, the most expensively-assembled teams won or came close to winning the league, whilst the cheapest squads generally faced relegation, but there were always under- or over-achievers.

With O’Neill’s big spending one would expect him to have underachieved, but the reality is that first season aside O’Neill overachieved or achieved exactly what was expected of his team. In 2006/07, the Aston Villa starting XI was the eighth most expensively assembled in the division, but finished in 11th place. This isn’t unusual, as managers must deal with their predecessor’s signings and haven’t had a chance to develop their own team in the first season. The following seasons are relatively impressive, finishing 6th for three consecutive years despite having the 8th, 7th and 6th most expensive teams respectively.

The fact is Lerner was backing his manager with the funds needed to sustain Villa’s league position, rather than push for Champions League football. Villa still had a team that was cheaper than the likes of Tottenham, Newcastle, Man City and even Everton to begin with. Of course there’s an argument to suggest O’Neill could have better spent his money, but given the money he did spend it should be no surprise that Villa didn’t finish higher in the league table.

This gives credence to the supporters of O’Neill, who felt Lerner should have continued to provide funds to build the squad. Indeed given the current competitive nature of the league and lack of spending from the top clubs (Man City aside) this season, perhaps it would have been wise to support O’Neill. As it is, Houllier must now be backed with funds if Villa want to maintain their Premier League status.

The debate over O’Neill’s spending at Villa is a reminder that looking at transfer fees can be misleading if not considered in a wider picture; that is relative to the rest of the league. Perhaps he should have been given the £18m to sign Darren Bent himself.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Danny Mackay permalink
    1 February 2011 6:17 pm

    I believe O’Neill definitely deserved more money. In my opinion Lerner is a fool, it’s difficult to build a team in the premiership, in the way that Everton have done and continuous investments are needed to achieve this. O’Neill may have made some questionable signings but he is a good manager, and gets the best out of his players, he also made the players that gave Villa huge influxes of cash, James Milner and Gareth Barry. I believe if O’Neill had stayed at Villa and continued to build a team they would be in a much better position than the one they are in now. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to compete with the top teams when they have ludicrous amounts of money to spend on wages and transfers, but O’Neill was doing a much better job than Houllier ever could.

    • 1 February 2011 11:19 pm

      I agree. One of my biggest frustrations with criticisms of any manager is that they ‘made poor signings’. No manager in the Premier League consistently makes poor signings; they’re in the top division for a reason. Yes there will always be one or two bad buys – Sir Alex has bought Hargreaves, Veron, Anderson, Kleberson, Djemba Djemba… but it’s always a poor excuse to dismiss a manager on. O’Neill had developed a team with a strong core, lacking in depth but not in ability. I have questions over his man-management style but on the whole he is obviously a good manager, and Lerner’s made a mistake.

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