Monday, April 21, 2008

And The Winner Is...

Two weeks ago, I announced the five nominees for my Premiership Manager of the Year award. Amongst the five were a Scotsman (David Moyes), an Irishman (Roy Keane), a gentleman from Northern Ireland (Martin O'Neill), a Spaniard (Juande Ramos), and a voyeur...excuse me, a Frenchman (Arsene Wenger).

That list was then narrowed down to three "semifinalists", as I dropped Ramos and Wenger from contention. The original plan was to name the winner two days later, but as you all know, I made a change and delayed the announcement until today, when two more rounds of games were played. As far as the winner goes, I really saw all I needed to see this weekend.

Don't get me wrong, I think each of these three managers have done a terrific job at their respective clubs this season. One of them has stood out above the rest, however, and so without further ado, here he is, my 2007-2008 Manager of the Year:

Drumroll please...

It's Aston Villa's Martin O'Neill!

I chose this specific picture of O'Neill because I think it is a great representation of the type of manager he is. We saw it after each of his team's five goals yesterday against Birmingham, this is a guy who is a players' coach and his team absolutely loves playing for him.

You can tell a lot about a manager by observing what he does after his team scores a goal; Sir Alex Ferguson has the same, exuberant celebration every time, Steve Bruce hops around a lot, Arsene Wenger pumps his fist a few times, Kevin Keegan leaps out of the dugout when Newcastle bags one, and they're all good, good managers. On the other side of the coin, you have guys like Rafa Benitez and Avram Grant, who seem almost disappointed when their their sides put one on the board. By no means are those two men bad managers, but again, it's telling that a high player turnover rate either has been or will be a constant in their tenure.

O'Neill takes it to a whole other level. He's the only manager from what I can tell who actually wears cleats on the sideline, showing his solidarity with the players. He jumps seemingly four or five feet off the ground when Villa scores, races down the touchline, and then runs back again.

"OK, that's fine, but what has O'Neill actually done to deserve this award?"

Well, I'll tell you. He has one of the smallest, if not the smallest, first team rosters in the Premiership. Only 16 field players have started a league game for the Villains this season and of those 16, nine have started 20 matches or more in the Premiership and 12 have started ten or more.

He also has one of the youngest first team rosters in the league. I joke all the time that he basically has half of England's U-21 team but the reality is, these are now players who are on the verge of the senior national team based on their performances this season, my man Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor chief among them.

Villa finished in 11th place last year and have a legitimate chance to wind up 5th this season. They've already improved on their 2006-2007 win total (11) by five, with three games left to play. A victory at Everton this weekend and the Birmingham-based club will almost assuredly be playing in Europe next season, either the Intertoto Cup to get into the UEFA Cup or straight into the continent's second-tier club tournament.

You also can't underemphasize Villa's two wins over Birmingham in the Second City Derby this year, and the 5-1 victory yesterday was a complete thrashing. Any time you can beat your hated rivals twice in one season, that's an accomplishment, no matter where either team sits in the standings.

O'Neill has shown an ability to make tactical adjustments on the fly, something that is key in a manager. His recent formational switch to a 4-3-3 has helped to net 15 goals in Villa's last three games. Villa's reputation as a set-piece monster also comes straight from the manager, who oversees that in training every day. Sure, it helps to have great aerial threats like John Carew, Olof Mellberg, and Martin Laursen, and a couple of fantastic dead-ball takers in Ashley Young and Gareth Barry, but success and execution still has to start from the manager.

Martin O'Neill, ladies and gentlemen, my 2007-2008 Premiership Manager of the Year.

For those who are interested, I had Moyes in second and Keane winning the Bronze.

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