Cup win can take Villa to the next level, says O'Neill

Irishman eyes trophy ahead of today's semi-final against Chelsea
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The Independent Football

It is not as if Aston Villa are starting today's FA Cup semi-final already 7-1 down to their opponents Chelsea, but with that infamous Premier League defeat just two weeks ago, it must occasionally feel that way.

Rarely has the FA Cup required quite such a game-on-game reversal of fortunes in order for one side to be victorious – although Crystal Palace did beat Liverpool in the semi-finals 20 years ago having lost 9-0 to them earlier in the season – and it was not surprising that the game occupied Villa minds this week. None more than James Collins, the Wales defender who gave away the penalty that resulted in Chelsea's first goal.

In the aftermath of the defeat at Stamford Bridge, Collins made recourse to modern footballers' confessional of choice: his Twitter page. He posted: "So sorry to every Villa fan after that appalling display. I'm embarrassed to call myself a footballer after that rubbish, sorry."

This week the 26-year-old was more reflective, describing the magnitude of the defeat as if were a surreal event that the Villa players could hardly believe had taken place. The consequences were real enough though, especially when, in the aftermath, manager Martin O'Neill dropped the broadest hint yet that he might be dissatisfied with life at Villa, although he later denied that was the case.

"I think it was more disbelief [from O'Neill] than anything," Collins said. "We went into the dressing room and couldn't really believe what had gone on. Looking back it was such a strange game. The manager said that he hadn't ever been involved in a game like it so I think it was time to reflect on the way we had played and realise the mistakes we had made.

"It's a strange one. You can hide and not look at the papers or not watch the telly. But I think you know deep down yourself if you have had a bad game and people are there to write about it so they're just going to write the same thing anyway. I'm honest enough to understand if I've had a bad game so I always tend to look at the papers.

"I actually didn't watch Match of the Day that night. I might say I'm big enough and ugly enough [to take criticism] but I didn't watch it. I think my wife took over the remote control that night. I don't think my mother actually talked to me. I don't think she answered the phone. I think she was just as embarrassed as I was."

It is telling that embarrassment was the first reaction, given that Villa have, in the O'Neill era, set much loftier targets than the club had previously thought attainable. Just as their owner Randy Lerner outlined in an interview with The Independent yesterday, they might be a club who want to build upon a firm foundation but that does not mean that they do not crave immediate success.

With some justification, O'Neill can point to the players he has signed and two successive sixth-placed finishes before this season in which Villa currently lie seventh, five points off fourth place. There is no doubt that they have a much better team than the one he inherited in 2006. But he also admitted this week that football clubs thrive on making grand statements and there would be no grander statement than beating Chelsea today.

"I've seen the effect [winning a trophy] has on a football club," O'Neill said. "I've seen it in the past, as manager and player. The lift it gives players who can consider themselves winners of a competition. They can come out and say they have won it. The lift it gives the club for future big matches is so important. That's why any club with decent aspirations should be trying to win.

"Ask [Everton's] David Moyes. He got to the final last year against Chelsea and got beaten. I heard him say halfway through the season this year – even when he was having a tough time, and points were important – that he would have swapped them for winning the FA Cup just to show they have it on the sideboard. Psychologically, [it's] the lift it gives the club. Villa have not won it since 1957 and we've contested one other final in that time."

Lerner's decision to break his silence ahead of the biggest game of Villa's season so far – including the Carling Cup final defeat to Manchester United – could be that he wants to assure people that the wobble with O'Neill is over. It could also be a subtle reminder that he and his chief operating officer Paul Faulkner are just as ambitious about the club's future as the manager.

Either way, the recent turbulence means that some of Villa's bigger achievements this season have been overlooked. In October they beat Chelsea at Villa Park; they have won at Old Trafford and Anfield and they have had six players in England squads at different times over the season. They have one of the most highly-rated managers of his generation, a sensible owner and a bright young squad. What they do not have is a trophy to show for it.

That, of course, is more difficult than ever in an era dominated by a cabal of four serial Champions League qualifying teams and now, in all likelihood, Manchester City with their Abu Dhabi fortune. Nevertheless that is the challenge facing every club that is outside the top tier of English football and few look as worthy of rising to the challenge as Villa and their manager.

"I genuinely believe we can win the game," O'Neill said this week. "It's not bravado. I don't think that the players will be thinking about the heavy defeat as they play the game." Of course, fourth place in the Premier League would probably be of greater financial benefit to Villa but you can never put a price on winning one of English football's major trophies.