Tuesday offered a textbook case of how quickly rumours can spread. Peter Lansley's piece sums up neatly how unconfirmed reports of Martin O'Neill's resignation as Aston Villa manager romped around the web and the airwaves. Heck, I was part of it too ... retweeting Oli Kay's tweet (which, responsibly, reminded us that it was UNCONFIRMED) and then watching the mayhem unfold.
I have to confess I don't understand the O'Neill phenomenon. Maybe it's my fault. I don't think he plays outstanding, innovative football. I do think he sets out his teams in a well-organised counter-attacking system and generally gets them to execute his game plan very well. But so do others.
I don't think he's particularly shrewd or creative in the transfer market. By my reckoning, since arriving at Villa Park, his club have spent more money than any other team in the Premier League (£88 million in net terms) with the exception of Manchester City. And, after all that expense, Villa will probably finish somewhere between fifth and seventh which basically equates to the club punching its weight.
Take a quick look at history. O'Neill finished 11th in his first season and sixth the last two years. The much maligned David O'Leary took Villa to fifth place in 2003-04. That was his first season at the club and he took over a side which had finished just three points above relegation the previous year. In the seven seasons between 1995 and 2002, Villa finished fourth, fifth, seventh, sixth, sixth, eighth and eighth, while winning the League Cup in 1996. The guys managing Villa in those years were Brian Little and John Gregory (with a bit of Graham Taylor thrown in). Neither Little nor Gregory (let alone O'Leary) are spoken of in the same glowing terms as O'Neill. And yet they achieved what they achieved without the massive investment from Randy Lerner, but with the rather more cautious Doug Ellis at the helm.
I fail to see what in his results at Aston Villa suggests he's any different from his peers who achieved comparable results, like Harry Redknapp (with a comparable budget) or David Moyes (with a smaller budget and smaller wage bill).
Further muddying the waters - and, again, it's probably just me - is the fact that I don't understand what his transfer strategy is. Since arriving at Villa he has only bought players from British clubs, with three exceptions: John Carew, reserve goalkeeper Brad Guzan and Moustapha Salifou (who is 26 and has yet to start a league game). It has been a pattern throughout his career. At Celtic, in five seasons he brought in three players from abroad: Bobo Balde and Joos Valgaeren who were pretty good and Michael Herbert, who never played a single league game for the club. Now, you obviously don't need to buy players from abroad to be a good manager. But the fact that he has bought just six in nearly nine seasons is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Unless he's somehow prejudiced against them (and I don't think he is), it suggests his scouting network and decision-making maybe isn't what it should be. Instead, he's bought British players, mostly young ones, for which he's been widely praised. But again, it's not as if he's unearthed gems, signing some teenage left back from Colchester who then goes on to become the next Stuart Pearce or an underrated striker from Reading whose career he helps get back on track. Most of his British signings are fairly obvious ones - well-known players at market prices, whether it's Stewart Downing or Ashley Young or James Milner. There's no great nous or imagination there, it's basically a case of bringing in brand names. And paying accordingly for the privilege.
He's supposed to be some kind of guru to young players, but, in fact, he's given league debuts to just four home-grown players in four seasons. One of them, Isaiah Osbourne, is now on loan at Middlesbrough. The other three - Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton and Nathan Delfouneso - have between them started a single league game this season and played less than 300 minutes between them. He's meant to be methodical and clear-thinking, but then he signed three quarters of his starting back four (Stephen Warnock, Richard Dunne and James Collins) in the last hours of the transfer window. Which actually doesn't suggest much of a plan at all.
What you're left with is his results. Which, as stated above, are good but not exceptional. Three SPL titltes, three Scottish FA Cups and a League Cup in five years. But, of course, that was at Celtic. Gordon Strachan, his successor, also won three league titles, as well as a Scottish FA Cup and two League Cups, and he did it in four years. You don't see Strachan mentioned in the same breath as Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough do you? And, yes, he did take Celtic to the Uefa Cup final. (But then Steve McClaren also took Middlesbrough to a Uefa Cup final).
O'Neill strikes me, ultimately, as someone who does the job to the level you would expect, given the resources at his disposal. Nothing less, nothing more. When you have a net spend of £88 million over four years, a top six finish is the least you can expect. We'll never know, of course, but one would imagine that, say, David Moyes might have attained comparable heights if he'd had £88 million to spend, instead of the roughly £20 million net spend he's had to work with since O'Neill's arrival. Who knows? Maybe some of the folks further down the food chain would have as well. Heck, maybe even Brian Little and John Gregory.
Would he have been more successful than, say Rafa Benitez at Liverpool or Wenger at Arsenal? Maybe, maybe not. But, while I can imagine an argument for why he would do worse, I have yet to hear a cogent argument for why he would definitely have done better. (I'm all ears, BTW. Though, of course, I accept that it's mere conjecture, we'll probably never know).
One more thing. Lansley's article mentions suggestions that O'Neill is under pressure because Lerner, Villa's owner, is unwilling to make further large investments in the club. If that's the case, it's more than understandable. You spend big, you get the players you want and then you work on making them play well together as a team.
O'Neill has succeeded in doing so with Young and Milner, now it's up to him to make it work with the others. But now comes the real test of whether he really is a special manager or just another "good" manager who suceeeds when he's awash with money. Now we'll find out what he can do. Provided, of course, the unconfirmed rumours are wholly false and he does decide to stick around, even with a switched off tap.
Follow Gabriele Marcotti on Twitter at twitter.com/marcotti.