Aston Villa are like the new, improved half of a before-and-after advert. Under Martin O'Neill's management, a team who had lost their way are unbeaten and buoyant. A change of ownership has produced a chairman, Randy Lerner, who is applauded to his seat. And on Ryder Cup Saturday, when British sports fans are supposed to come over all European, that one-time bastion of dissent, the Holte End, chanted "USA! USA!"
After a match that left Villa and Charlton at opposite ends of the Premiership, if not far apart in terms of performance, O'Neill felt obliged to introduce perspective into the euphoria sweeping Villa Park. "It's been a lovely day," he said. "But honestly, we're a long, long way short." The squad lacked numbers (copyright David O'Leary) and would "find their level" after next month's international break.
"We'll get beaten, make no mistake," said O'Neill, going on to highlight the biggest change in Villa, "though it won't be through attitude." Given that they began the season at Arsenal, the Northern Irishman is surprised to be continually asked when the "real test" will come. Next Saturday, when a visit to Chelsea will reunite the managers from the 2003 Uefa Cup final between Celtic and Porto, will answer such questions.
What is especially impressive about O'Neill's first two months in charge is the way he has taken on someone else's team, and, with the sole addition of Stiliyan Petrov, instilled the confidence, organisation and work-rate that regularly helped his Leicester side finish in the top half. No one personifies the transformation better than Juan Pablo Angel, whose sulky demeanour has given way to silky link play and relentless industry.
The Colombian was involved in the build-up to the first goal by Gabby Agbonlahor - the boyhood Villa fan's first on home turf - which came as Charlton threatened to turn a healthy share of possession into goals. He made the second for Luke Moore with a perfectly weighted and angled pass, of which his compatriot Carlos Valderrama would have been proud.
The scorers, 19 and 20 respectively and Brummies to boot, give Villa a youthful zest, although O'Neill acknowledges that both are raw and could learn much from the senior partner about timing their runs and bringing others into play. "Angel has the ability to get the ball down and hold it up," he said. "At the moment he looks a master of that art."
Moore and Agbonlahor - who has the pace of his hero, Tony Daley, and is qualified for Nigeria but holding out for England - are centre-forwards operating as wingers. O'Neill showed a refreshing lack of vanity when asked about how he devised their roles. "This is not my master plan. That's the side we went in with at the start of the season because those were the players we had. We didn't have any more fit players."
The test for Villa will come when results falter, and, indeed, when O'Neill presents Lerner with his shopping list in January. For now, however, the feelgood factor is almost tangible, the American being feted like the leader of a people's liberation army rather than a billionaire who has funded the campaigns of President Bush.
Iain Dowie sounded like a US military spokesman after a fifth defeat in six since joining Charlton. While O'Neill had "got a force going for Villa", it was time for all at The Valley to "dig ourselves out of a hole" (perhaps a euphemism for "to teach Dennis Rommedahl not to squander all the dangerous situations he creates").
O'Neill would no doubt view Dowie's parting shot as equally pertinent to Villa. "Character is what you show when things aren't going right," the Charlton manager mused. "Anyone can show it when things are bright and rosy."
Goals: Moore (35) 1-0; Agbonlahor (62) 2-0.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Sorensen; A Hughes, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Barry; Davis, McCann, Petrov; Agbonlahor, Angel, Moore (Baros, 82). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Laursen, Whittingham, Berger.
Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Carson; Young, El Karkouri, Fortune, Hreidarsson; Rommedahl, B Hughes, Faye, Holland (M Bent, 66); Hasselbaink (Ambrose, 66), D Bent. Substitutes not used: Myhre (gk), Kishishev, Sankofa.
Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).
Booked: Charlton Faye.
Man of the match: Angel.
Attendance: 35,513.Reuse content