Martin O'Neill admits Aston Villa have sorely missed the "big heart" of injured captain Martin Laursen after seeing their hopes of securing Champions League football virtually disappear. The defender is expected to announce he will be quitting the game during the next few days after the latest in a long line of knee setbacks.
The 31-year-old has been out of action since early January when he appeared in the 2-1 home win over West Bromwich Albion. And O'Neill concedes that Villa have struggled to replace his dominating presence in the penalty area and his knack of scoring vital goals at set-pieces.
O'Neill said: "We have missed Martin greatly. We have won matches without him this season but his overall contribution and absence has been a big loss. We have conceded 26 goals in 12 games but had only conceded three in the previous eight games when Martin hadn't played. But the overall picture is that we have missed him. We have missed his presence, his ability to score some goals for us, and he was as brave as a lion.
"His overall presence is what we have missed. He goes for everything. He has got a big heart. The ironic thing is he has had no problems with the other knee which is the one that gave him the problems throughout the last few years. He looks after himself brilliantly and, after the West Ham game in December, if you had said he would only play one more league game I would have been really surprised."
While O'Neill looks to have lost Laursen, he is expecting to see the return of Wilfred Bouma. The left-back should be fully fit for the start of pre-season training after keyhole surgery to his ankle ended hopes of a comeback this season.
Bouma dislocated his ankle during the Intertoto Cup game with Odense BK in July and was sidelined for eight months. He had looked on course to play during the current season after notching up three 90-minute appearances for the reserves, but some floating bone in his ankle meant the Netherlands international required further surgery. O'Neill said: "Freddy will miss the rest of the season. It's been a wretched time for him. He has gone to see the specialist who helped him with the injury originally.
"He has gone in for some keyhole surgery to remove some of the particles that have been floating around. Whether they've been there for a week or a few months, we're not sure. But it's causing him discomfort. The long and short of it is that he'll be out for the rest of the season. But he should, with a bit of luck, come roaring back during pre-season."
Meanwhile, striker and 13-goal joint top scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor and midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker look set to be fit for Monday's Premier League match with Hull City at Villa Park.
They both missed the 1-1 draw at Bolton last weekend through injury, but O'Neill is confident they will be fit for the Bank Holiday match.
He said: "Nigel and Gabby should be fine. Gabby has trained – although he did train last week to be fair and still missed the Bolton game. It was a precaution that he didn't play at the weekend because he just felt the hamstring. But I think he will be fine for Hull. Nigel has come in this week and has gradually done some work. He is feeling much, much better which is good news. He should be fine, too."
O'Neill is also hoping right-back Luke Young will be available after a foot problem forced him to miss the trip to the Reebok Stadium. "Luke has been sore for quite a number of weeks – playing with pain-killing injections. In the game against West Ham 10 or 11 days ago, he felt the injection wore off rather quickly. I thought the best thing to do was to give him a rest."