Alex McLeish may face sack even if Villa stay up

Villa manager's sole focus on short-term survival raises questions about owner's intentions

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The Independent Online

He may have vowed to rescue Aston Villa from the hands of relegation gripping their throats, yet when it came to offering guarantees he could save himself from the sack, Alex McLeish was less forthcoming.

Despite arriving in a cloud of controversy when he crossed the Second City divide from Birmingham City last summer, the Scot could surely not have envisaged just how catastrophically his first season at Villa Park would unfold.

Tuesday's defeat to Bolton Wanderers was the nadir. Supporters called for McLeish's head after Villa were left only three points adrift of the bottom three following a run of one victory from 13 Premier League matches. Then, a day later, came the dreaded vote of confidence from Randy Lerner, the owner.

With only three matches remaining – a visit of Tottenham Hotspur and a trip to Norwich City follow today's derby at West Bromwich Albion – securing Villa's top-flight status is the priority. Yet the insistence from McLeish, who signed a three-year contract last summer, that his horizons are now purely focused on this season marked a significant shift in his rhetoric.

"We are concentrating on the last three games before anybody makes any statements about futures – that includes me," he said. "These decisions are not for now. I couldn't even begin to think about next season until we get this season over."

His assertion that "I think I can get them over the finishing line" did little to diminish the growing impression that McLeish's objectives now sit purely in the short term and Villa are likely to be soon making a third managerial appointment inside two years.

What about those who argue he has under-achieved with the resources at his disposal? "Well, they were relegation-threatened last year with a stronger squad," McLeish responded. "But you obviously think that maybe players will play out of their skin and we'll get a wee bit of luck here and there and we can stay clear the whole season. But I knew there was no guarantee of that."

In the meantime, the message from Lerner is simple. Asked what the American had said to him this week, McLeish replied: "Stay in the league." The Scot added: "He has been supportive. He has known it would be a difficult job for anyone taking over this club in the past couple of years."

McLeish conceded the strains have taken their toll on him. "You don't ever get used to being criticised. You don't ever think 'I'm immune to that now', but you have to cope and show leadership. I think I've got plenty of that."

Support has been forthcoming from his peers. "Wee Gordon Strachan was at the Bolton game the other night and I had a good, long chat with him [on Thursday]," he said. "There is great empathy there. It [the strain] is just something I'm used to."

The question now is how much longer he will have to put up with it.

Basement battle: Remaining games

Aston Villa Today West Bromwich Albion (a); 6 May Tottenham Hotspur (h); 13 May Norwich City (a)

QPR Tomorrow Chelsea (a); 6 May;Stoke City (h); 13 May Manchester City (a)

Wigan Today Newcastle (h); 7 May; Blackburn (a); 13 May Wolves (h)

Bolton Today Sunderland (a); Wednesday Tottenham (h); 6 May West Bromwich (h); 13 May Stoke (a)

Blackburn Tomorrow Tottenham (a); 7 May Wigan (h); 13 May Chelsea (a)

Five into two won't go: But who is in best shape to bounce back?

Bolton Wanderers

Arguably Bolton would be in the worst position if they were playing Championship football next season. They are already in £110 million of debt, a problem which would be exacerbated by the financial cuts imposed by relegation. A return would not be certain, either. Too many of their players' contracts expire this summer: Martin Petrov, Tuncay Sanli, Kevin Davies, Zat Knight, Ricardo Gardner and Ivan Klasnic can all leave for free this summer, and if Bolton go down, why would they not? Their two most marketable assets, Chung Yong-Lee and Stuart Holden, both only have one year left on their deals, and would have their values watered down by injury problems.

Blackburn Rovers

The Venky's approach should Blackburn be relegated is unclear. They have not looked desperately keen to inject the club with as much money as they need so far, and without the global lustre of the Premier League the rationale of their ownership would vanish. But the debt, at £26.3m, is less bad than it is at some of their rivals, and the club could well hope to bring in more money through the transfer market. Steven N'Zonzi, Mauro Formica, Ruben Rochina and David Goodwillie are all young and talented enough to command fees, although Junior Hoilett seems certain to leave on a free.

Queen's Park Rangers

Rangers would be in a very serious position indeed if they do not complete their scramble towards safety. Many generous long-term contracts have been handed out since Tony Fernandes bought the club last summer, many of which did not include relegation clauses, meaning no great reduction to Joey Barton's £70,000 per week or the £60,000 received by Djibril Cisse or Nedum Onuoha. Changing managers and coaching staff mid-season is never cheap either. Without the Premier League television money, Fernandes would have to dig deep into his own pocket to keep the club going.

Wigan Athletic

Wigan are not particularly lucrative but the personal interest of owner Dave Whelan means that their position is more secure than most. He recently converted £48m of debt into equity, and his passion for the club, and willingness to support it, shows no sign of changing. He has said that he will not sack Roberto Martinez, who has Championship experience with Swansea City, and Wigan have a core of players who could probably come up anyway. Hugo Rodallega is likely to leave this summer on a free transfer whichever league Wigan are in.

Aston Villa

Given that Martin O'Neill took them to the brink of Champions League football, relegation would be a shock to Aston Villa. Darren Bent would surely be sold, as presumably would Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia. Randy Lerner, who has put enough of his own money into Aston Villa already, saw the club lose £54m last year, and any replacement of Alex McLeish would be expensive too. On the plus side, Villa have a large guaranteed fan-base and a good set of young players to build around if the better players leave.

Jack Pitt-Brooke