IT has been two years since Martin O’Neill left Villa Park, but look closely and the wounds are still there – not so much among the supporters but in the ex-Villa manager himself.
The Sunderland manager received lukewarm abuse on his return to a club that he lifted by the boot straps, but – in the opinion of many fans – left in the lurch when he quit five days before the start of the 2010-11 season.
O’Neill insisted: “I wasn’t disappointed. It was a natural reaction from the fans, since I left two years ago without them ever really knowing the reason why. So I was expecting it, and I got it.
“The idea that I’d left them in the lurch, I apologise to them for that, leaving five days before the season started.
“But I took over at Villa just a fortnight before the start of the season with a team that had almost been relegated the previous year.
“And when I left, while the timing was never great really, I left the club with an infinitely better squad than the one I inherited – internationals galore.
“People may have forgotten that.”
It was a considered response from O’Neill, who was in subdued mood on his return to his former stamping ground.
“In the scheme of things, me coming back, it’s not important,” he continued. “It was a sideshow to the game itself and the two teams are always the most important thing in any game.”
“Of course I regret how it ended – I was here for four years,” he said.
“It was strange to go to a dressing room I never visited in my time here, strange to go the opposition dug-out.
“I hope it doesn’t sound patronising, although I’m sure it does, but I had a great few years at Aston Villa and have the greatest of respect for the club.”
“It went a little sour in the last year – which ironically was our best year in terms of results – but that aside it was a genuine privilege to manage what was and remains a great, great club.
“It will rise again because it’s too big not too and when it does, I’ll be happy for the club and happy for the fans.”