Aston Villa spark tug of war for Mark Hughes as Martin O'Neill quits on eve of new season
Aston Villa were on Monday night considering making a formal approach for Fulham's Mark Hughes after Martin O'Neill quit as the club's manager.
By Jason Burt
Target: Aston Villa could turn to new Fulham manager Mark Hughes as they search for a replacement for Martin O'Neill, who resigned on Monday. Extraordinarily, Hughes is believed to figure prominently in Villa's possible candidates even though he signed a two-year deal at Craven Cottage only on July 29 and is yet to take charge of a competitive game.
However the only chance of Hughes leaving Fulham would be if the club accepted his contract being bought out by Villa. It is unthinkable that Fulham would even countenance this, or that Hughes would welcome it at this stage, which means that Villa will have to start a wider search just four days before the start of the Premier League season.
Alan Curbishley is among a number of out-of-work managers who would covet the post – Sven-Göran Eriksson would also be on that list – but Villa will undoubtedly look elsewhere first. Martin Jol, ironically the man whose decision to turn down Fulham led to Hughes's eventual appointment, is also under consideration although it would be extremely costly to extricate him from Ajax.
O'Neill left after what sources described as a "disastrous" meeting on Sunday evening with the club's hierarchy. There has been tension for several months – and O'Neill and the club have had to deal with persistent suggestions he was about to leave – but this is understood to have spilt over with a disagreement over the transfer funds being made available to the now former manager before the window closes.
With James Milner's sale to Manchester City imminent – for a fee which may also include a deal to acquire Stephen Ireland, a player O'Neill may not necessarily have wanted – and Ashley Young still a target of Tottenham Hotspur, O'Neill was anxious to ensure that sufficient money was made available particularly to acquire Celtic's Aiden McGeady. It appears that money was not forthcoming.
In addition, he is understood to have been told in no uncertain terms that owner Randy Lerner was not going to continue sustaining the losses he has endured since he acquired Villa in 2006. Since then the American has underwritten Villa to the tune of £179 million with the club making losses of £43.7 million last year.
Most damagingly, the club's wage bill has risen by 42 per cent to £71 million (£11 million more than Tottenham and £21 million more than Everton) giving an alarming wages-to-turnover figure of 85 per cent – with the likes of Richard Dunne believed to be earning £70,000 a week.
In return, O'Neill has achieved three consecutive sixth-placed finishes, a Carling Cup final appearance and turned around a club which appeared to be in a downward spiral under David O'Leary. It has not been a poor return but there has been a disagreement as to how the club goes forward.
Sources close to O'Neill, who worked under a 12-month rolling contract, on Monday night suggested that the 58 year-old felt hugely frustrated by the lack of movement in the transfer market and wanted to receive a more positive message from Lerner. It meant that on the eve of the new season O'Neill – who had asked for £30 million to spend – did not think he was getting the support he required.
There have been suggestions for some time that the relationship between O'Neill and Lerner has been strained but last April, when the Northern Irishman revealed he would consider his future in the summer, he also claimed that the entrepreneur had been the first to call him when rumours circulated that he had quit.
At that time, Hughes was understood to have been a candidate to replace O'Neill.
Since then, Lerner has not been impressed that the clear-out of players that was proposed at the end of last season has not yet happened. Until Nicky Shorey was sold on Monday, none of the six senior players – whose collective wages are close to £250,000 a week with few featuring last season – had moved. Alarmingly, season ticket sales at Villa are down 40 per cent on last year.
Opinion remains divided over O'Neill's success at the club. He brought energy and drive and stability and bought young English talent but his style of football was also criticised at times. On balance his stock remains reasonably high.
Even as recently as last week, O'Neill was firefighting further suggestions he was about to go, telling the local evening newspaper that "who's to say it [the speculation] has gone away? This is the nature of the game".
That turned into a reality on Monday with Villa releasing a statement with chief executive Paul Faulkner confirming: "He [O'Neill] has helped to establish the club in the upper echelons of the Premier League, has taken us to Wembley and we have also qualified for European competition for the past three seasons under his management. We wish him the best in the future."
As part of the statement, O'Neill said: "I have enjoyed my time at Aston Villa immensely. It's obviously a wrench to be leaving such a magnificent club. I would like to pay tribute to the Villa players, my coaching staff and the Villa supporters for all the support and encouragement they have given both the club and me personally during my time as manager. I wish them all the best in the future."
Reserve team manager Kevin MacDonald has been placed in temporary control ahead of Saturday's opening league match at home to West Ham United which Lerner had planned to attend.