All last week, Kevin MacDonald was waking in the small hours with myriad team formations buzzing in his head. Surely, the acting manager was asked after Aston Villa's rout of West Ham, he could relax and slumber on now. "Probably not," the Scot replied, half-serious, half-smiling, "because I'll be having to think about Rapid Vienna in the Europa League on Thursday night."
Many Villa insiders believe the 49-year-old reserve coach could do the job in his sleep. Randy Lerner, the club's American owner-chairman, may be among them, having suggested afterwards that much depended on whether the back-room stalwart he characterised as "cool" and "popular" actually felt "comfortable with the idea of being manager". MacDonald's modesty precludes him from trumpeting his credentials, but Lerner volunteered a telling precedent: "A so-called caretaker manager called Tony Barton won Villa the European Cup."
Barton's success in 1982 was predicated on keeping the team he inherited after Ron Saunders' abrupt exit ticking over, whereas MacDonald has already demonstrated the confidence and imagination to do things differently from Martin O'Neill.
Not only did his fast, fluid attacking approach draw on the youthful talent he has helped develop – 20-year-old winger Marc Albrighton running West Ham ragged on his full debut, allowing Ashley Young a free role – he also coaxed fresh impetus from the senior players, with Stiliyan Petrov revitalised in central midfield.
Petrov, who followed O'Neill from Celtic and became his captain, personified one significant tweak made by MacDonald when he ghosted in to score with a header, bookended by strikes from Stewart Downing and James Milner. Last season, the Bulgarian's holding role meant he seldom ventured into the areas that brought him so many goals in Scotland.
"I told Kevin before the game, 'You try and hold on to this job'," said Petrov, who described as "strange" the timing of O'Neill's resignation. "With the way Kev prepared us for how he wanted us to play, he showed that he wants the job. I hope we can help him get it."
One key change was MacDonald settling on his selection (including Luke Young at right-back, where his predecessor favoured central defender Carlos Cuellar) a few days before the match and working on ways he sensed Villa could dominate. O'Neill tended to name his team an hour before kick-off. "Every manager has a different style," Petrov noted. "Kev has a different vision of how we can play and we showed we can be faster and play with more freedom. We're moving the ball quicker to try to hurt teams, not just playing on the counter-attack."
Milner was initially booed by fans angered by his desire to follow Gareth Barry to Manchester City. After rewarding MacDonald's gamble on playing him with a high-energy display and fine goal that capped the win, the midfielder came off to an ovation as thunderous as the weather.
"He deserved it," Petrov said. "You don't see many more honest players playing with such heart. When the fans are behind you, it makes it even harder to leave. After that, you never know, he may even decide to stay."
MacDonald was fortunate that West Ham were so wretched in Avram Grant's first match as manager; shambolic in defence, laboured in midfield and seldom a threat to a defence in which Ciaran Clark, 20, made an assured second appearance. There were, sighed Grant, "a lot of financial problems" and "a few areas [of the squad] where we don't even have one player".
Aston Villa 4-5-1: Friedel; L Young, Clark, Dunne, Warnock; Albrighton (Bannan, 89), Milner (Reo-Coker, 89), Petrov, Downing, A Young (Weimann, 86); Carew. Substitutes not used Guzan (gk), Beye, Lichaj, Heskey.
West Ham United 4-5-1: Green; Reid, Tomkins (Diamanti, 72), Upson, Ilunga; Faubert, Parker, Noble, Kovac (Piquionne, h-t), Boa Morte (Barrera, h-t); Cole. Subs not used Stech (gk), Gabbidon, Spector, Sears.
Booked Tomkins, Faubert.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
Man of the match Albrighton.