Mutiny? what mutiny? The Aston Villa manager, Gérard Houllier, was caught between bemusement and amusement yesterday when he responded to claims that players at the relegation-threatened club were in revolt against a crackdown on indiscipline after the fracas involving Richard Dunne, James Collins and Villa coaching staff at a health spa before the international break.
Houllier, who is confident that positive displays by Villa's England trio during the past week will provide momentum for the remaining eight Premier League fixtures, scoffed when the "m" word was raised. The players are reputedly angry that, as part of a new code of conduct, mobile phones have been banned from the training ground and fines imposed for poor timekeeping.
Reports of such draconian measures were "absolutely untrue", said Houllier. He added: "You can even ask the players. I didn't mention anything, even after the [health spa] incident. There's no ban on mobiles except in the changing room, which is normal for everyone. I only mentioned that on my first day.
"I've heard about these fines but I've never fined a player who's been late. There was one whose plane supposedly didn't take off because of snow. And some players live in London, but if they get stuck in traffic, they ring. They don't need a bing [sic] on the head. I hate fines. And the rulebook is laid down by the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association]."
However, the former Liverpool manager's reaction to being reminded about Dunne's and Collins' bad behaviour as he prepares to return to Merseyside for Villa's match against Everton tomorrow was terse. "It has been dealt with. It's gone, it's passed, it's finished, it's over," he said, sounding like the pet-shop customer in Monty Python's "dead parrot" sketch.
Houllier believes that Villa, far from being riven by dissent, have been buoyed by the exploits of Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Darren Bent for England. Young, he argued, had showcased his versatility, operating on either flank or off the main striker, while Downing was named man of the match against Ghana and Bent scored in Wales.
"We must also give special credit to Stiliyan Petrov's massive achievement in getting 100 caps for Bulgaria. Richard [Dunne] won with Ireland against Macedonia, and Marc Albrighton did well for England's Under-21s. When you have a run of good results and they go off with their countries, you fear you might lose a bit of tempo. This time it did everybody some good, including me."
It will add to the bafflement of Villa's followers – some of whom displayed a "Houllier Out" banner before the defeat by Wolves a fortnight ago and chanted for his dismissal afterwards – that the international hiatus underlined the ability at his disposal and yet they are only a point above the bottom three after just six wins in his 25 League games.
Asked to explain this discrepancy, the Frenchman alluded to Martin O'Neill's exit five days before the start of the campaign and the transitional period under Kevin MacDonald. "I think this team had a traumatic start to the season, with various managers, and we couldn't recruit until January. Sometimes injuries cost us and we weren't lucky at Bolton [a 3-2 defeat last month] when Bent was clearly onside and the referee's assistant made a mistake.
"That was a turning point. But you can't spend your time regretting and reflecting. We know we could've got better results and obviously we question ourselves, but the atmosphere is good and the quality is there. So let's stay positive and strong. All I know is we've got a 'league' of eight games which is vital for the future of the club."
Before the defeat by Wolves, Houllier had talked up the "passion" within his squad. They then lost at home to a side in the relegation places. "Let's face reality. We didn't play well and lacked composure and fluency. We weren't relaxed enough. There was a pressure on the team because we'd lost at Bolton. If you play well and lose it affects confidence more than when you play badly and lose."
The pressure is even greater now. Did he feel it? "Not at all. But I fully understand the crowd's frustration. The manager is responsible for results but the players are responsible for the game. When there's a gap between what we're capable of and the result, that creates anxiety and disappointment."
Houllier speaks to Villa's US-based owner, Randy Lerner, "on a regular basis" as well as to chief executive Paul Faulkner "every day" and insisted the three were "very close". "We're all in this together," he said, now beginning to echo George Osborne's Budget speech. "Management, players, staff, owner, chief executive, fans, everyone. If someone is not with us, if he's not giving 100 per cent, he's got to leave. The spirit is good and we know how the land lies."