Downing admits it is a welcome relief to get away from Villa

England winger happy for a break from Houllier's failing attempts to improve fortunes at Midlands club
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The Independent Football

The Aston Villa winger Stewart Downing last night admitted that the opportunity to escape the Midlands club's travails in exchange for England's Euro 2012 qualification campaign has come as a welcome relief.

Saturday's demoralising 1-0 defeat at home to Wolves made it just one win from their last six matches and has seen them plummet to within a point of the Premier League relegation zone.

Manager Gérard Houllier, who has overseen just six wins in Villa's 25 league games since his arrival, was subjected to calls for his sacking by supporters. That said, the 63-year-old was this week handed a vote of confidence by the club's chief executive, Paul Faulkner.

Owner Randy Lerner is, however, believed to have been unimpressed by Houllier's claim that the American backed his decision to leave out a string of first-choice players for the FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Manchester City at the start of the month. That irritation has only been compounded by Bolton Wanderers' and Stoke City's success in the competition in reaching Wembley for the semi-finals.

On the playing side, Downing, one of four Villans in Fabio Capello's squad to face Wales in Saturday's meeting at the Millennium Stadium along with Ashley Young, Darren Bent and Kyle Walker, conceded a rest from domestic duty was required. He said: "It does help to have a break from the relegation worries. You are part of a different environment with a different kind of pressure.

"If you do well, it can help bring confidence for when you go back to the club. We can regroup at Villa and get some players back from injury and suspension so it [the break] has probably come at a good time. Then we can get focused and go again because we missed some of those players not involved against Wolves."

As a former schoolteacher, you would expect Houllier to be well versed when it comes to instilling discipline. So it has proved. A fortnight on from defenders James Collins and Richard Dunne being at the centre of an alcohol-fuelled dispute with backroom staff during what was supposed to be a team-building break, the Frenchman has moved to lay down the law by altering parts of the club's Professional Footballers' Association-approved rulebook. One of the new regulations he will enforce is understood to include forbidding the use of mobile phones in the dressing room.

The move appears to have been met with a lukewarm response, however, with at least two of his players believed to be seeking advice before signing up to the new regime.

Collins and Dunne were fined a combined £200,000 for their misdemeanours and they are not the first to have fallen foul of Houllier's no-nonsense approach.

Senior players like Stephen Warnock, John Carew, Habib Beye and Stephen Ireland have either been sent out on loan or frozen out of the first-team picture in what has been a French revolution, rather than the evolution anticipated, at Villa Park.

The absence of Warnock, a player who made the cut for England's World Cup squad last year, seems farcical when the left-back slot was filled by first 19-year-old Nathan Baker and then midfielder Fabian Delph last weekend.

There is a growing suspicion Houllier has attempted to do things too quickly; as his predecessor Martin O'Neill remarked during an address to MPs earlier this week, player power has never been so rampant in the game. Whether Houllier likes it or not, that is not about to change.

Maintaining authority is, of course, imperative for any manager, yet Houllier needs friends, not enemies, in a dressing room he must quickly rally for what he on Saturday described as "eight Champions League ties".

For most managers, insert the usual "cup finals" cliché, yet Houllier's metaphor was a telling reminder that this is not the sort of battle he is accustomed to come the business end of the season.

Houllier's time at Villa

24 September 2010 Signs three-year deal at Villa.

27 September to 10 December Club manage only one win in 10 games.

5 January 2011 Defeat by Sunderland sees Villa enter the relegation zone for first time since 2002.

4 February Houllier publicly questions commitment of Stephen Warnock and Habib Beye.

2 March FA Cup fifth-round exit after fielding weakened side away to Manchester City.

17 March James Collins and Richard Dunne disciplined for confrontation with backroom staff on team-bonding exercise.

19 March A banner reading 'HAD ENOUGH, HOULLIER OUT' is unveiled by fans during 1-0 home defeat by Wolves.