I have to say that I have always held a sneaking regard for both Aston Villa and Martin O’Neill. I regard Villa, with their rich history and occasional bouts of being reasonably successful, as a “proper” English football club (though they lost about a million brownie points when they demolished the marvellous Trinity Road stand a couple of years ago). I first saw a team managed by Martin O’Neill in 1987, when he took Wycombe Wanderers to Clarence Park to play St Albans City in the Isthmian League Premier Division – they won 4-1 on their way to a comfortable title win, and O’Neill was already demonstrating the motivational qualities that would, within two decades, see him being linked with the England manager’s job. Every club that he has had a spell in charge of has ended up in a significantly better state than it was in when he first arrived there, and that is, I guess, about as much as you can ask of a manager.
I suspect that these feeling might be more widespread than one might expect, because there was a considerable amount of delight at Villa’s win against Chelsea yesterday – possibly a disproportionate amount. It wasn’t merely the victory itself, but the manner of it too. Villa matched Chelsea every inch of the way, and even managed a “Roy Of The Rovers” story in new signing Zat Knight, a boyhood Villa fan with a thick Birmingham accent, opening the scoring. As a matter of fact (and it’s not often that you’ll hear me say this), Steve McClaren had quite a helpful weekend. Luke Young, recently added to his squad, set up Villa’s second goal, whilst up at St James Park, Michael Owen finally scored his first goal of the year for Newcastle United against Wigan Athletic. I still don’t think that England will qualify for the finals of Euro 2008, but they’ve got a fighting chance if Owen comes back into form. Finally in the Premier League, weren’t Manchester United terrible against Sunderland on Saturday? Sunderland were reasonably well-organised, but United’s new look team still isn’t gelling, and they’ll continue to run into problems unless they improve rapidly.
The Championship looks like being even less predictable than less season – there are three points between Barnsley in twenty-first place and Scunthorpe United in fourth place. Coventry City are the team occupying top place for the next few days, courtesy of a 2-1 win over Preston North End, with Watford moving ominously into second place after a win against Ipswich Town. At the bottom of the table, Sheffield Wednesday’s wretched start to the season continued with a 1-0 home defeat against Bristol City, who moved inexplicably into third place. In League One, Leyton Orient stayed top of the table, in spite of losing their perfect record after having to come from two behind to draw at home to Northampton Town. Meanwhile, Leeds United’s fifteen point deduction is fast becoming a fading memory – they’re one win from zero points after beating Luton Town 1-0 at Elland Road. League Two’s story of the day came at Spotland, where (and let’s please try to stop sniggering) Rochdale scored twice in the last minute to beat Franchise 3-2.
Finally, the FA Cup reached the Preliminary Round stage over the weekend. FC United of Manchester played out their first ever match in the competition yesterday, “away” to Trafford FC (oh, the irony) at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground. They won the match 5-2, in front of a crowd of almost 2,300 and travel to play Fleetwood Town in the next round. Elsewhere, AFC Sudbury (who, you may recall, I saw batter a fairly hapless Wivenhoe Town team in the Ryman League last week) fluffed their lines in their derby match against Bury Town, and lost 3-2, whilst Enfield Town, the nearest surviving relatives to the great giant-killing team of the early 1980s, are also through after a 2-1 against AFC Hayes (who changed their name from Brook House at the end of last season, and are not to be confused with Hayes & Yeading of the Conference South). Finally, other results stand out from the rest – a lucky 55 people saw Colliers Wood United beat Faversham Town 7-6 (yes, that’s 7-6 – if, just on the off-chance, you were one of these people, you should definitely send us a match report), whilst we should all spare a thought for poor old Ipswich Wanderers. They might have been hoping for an exotic cup run, playing teams that they wouldn’t normally play. Well, they drew Needham Market, from the same league as them (the Ridgeons Eastern Counties League), but at least it was a home draw. They lost 10-1. Ah, the romance of the cup.