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Martin O'Neill's passionate leadership of Aston Villa

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill has a brilliant mind and there is a passionate intensity in anything he does, coupled with deep introspection and crackling nervous energy

We were in the cavernous tunnel at Old Trafford in December. Aston Villa had just beaten Manchester United there for the first time in a generation and I asked Martin O'Neill if he had enjoyed the experience.

"The game?" he replied, "I haven't enjoyed a game in 20 years!"

There was a twinkle in his eye and a self-deprecating smile but more than an ounce of truth in his answer.

The Villa boss is one of the most intriguing men I have ever met in the game. He has a brilliant mind and there is a passionate intensity in anything he does, coupled with deep introspection and crackling nervous energy.

His humour can you make you laugh out loud. His touchline prowling, scowling, bopping and hopping can have you worrying for his health.

Now, after that thrilling win over Blackburn last week, he has to run the gauntlet of emotions against Manchester United in an even bigger occasion, at Wembley in the Carling Cup final on 28 February.

He knows how important winning the competition is for his talented but, as yet, unfulfilled side.

The team is growing. He tells the written press that he has the best side seen at Villa in 20 years, but he knows the group will only improve if it can feed off the tangible success brought by silverware.

The Carling Cup will mean Europe is guaranteed for next year. Villa will then have the platform to sustain a challenge for the Champions League.

The chance of playing against the elite will encourage the players to commit to the long-term future - there would be no need for another Gareth Barry journey for self-fulfilment at another club.

A trophy would also end a 14-year barren spell for Villa.

O'Neill is clearly moved when he talks about how "invigorating" it is to be challenging for the top four.

He knows that the final is a vital step and while "it's lovely being a fine footballing team, we need to finish games off".

He knows football is a seductive mistress. It can love you. It can betray you. It can be wondrous. It can be hateful. That is why he loves it.

That is why, at times I suspect, he hates it too and before Wembley is even considered he'll endure the same delights and doubts, agonies and ecstasies at every game Villa face starting with Fulham on Saturday.

He is pure theatre and I will once again be an admiring member of the audience at Craven Cottage.

Jonathan Pearce will commentate on Fulham v Aston Villa for Match of the Day on Saturday. The programme will broadcast on BBC One and online at 2230 GMT.

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see also
Fulham 0-2 Aston Villa
30 Jan 10 |  Premier League
A Villa 6-4 Blackburn (agg 7-4)
20 Jan 10 |  League Cup

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