Middlesbrough 0 Aston Villa 3: O'Neill's England candidates do their talking on the pitch

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The Independent Football

Was it simply the imagination, or was it possible to hear the strains of Corrine Bailey Rae over the PA system as the Riverside Stadium emptied to the sounds of taunts and jeers on Saturday evening? You know: "The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same."

Back in February 2006 Middlesbrough went into meltdown against Aston Villa at the Riverside, losing 4-0, and their manager was the subject of public ridicule. One supporter, a certain Mark Davison, vaulted the pitch-side barriers and flung his season-ticket book at the man in the Middlesbrough hot-seat. "McClaren for England," the home fans chorused. They were indulging in irony.

On Saturday it was the Aston Villa fans who were doing the taunting, this time with a dash of schadenfreude. "Southgate for City," they chanted at their club's former captain, who as manager of Middlesbrough is on a run of nine Premier League games without a win. McClaren's record in the wake of that Villa thrashing the season before last was one win in 11.

Twenty-one months on, McClaren has been and gone as England manager, Middlesbrough are in something of a mess again and Martin O'Neill is still standing out as an ideal candidate for the task of galvanising the English national side. The Villa manager might have spoken on Friday about his "commitment" to his club and about his failure in the interview process last time around but the man who read law at Queen's University, Belfast (before Nottingham Forest came knocking on his door) chose his words with the care of a barrister he might have become.

It was the same on Saturday. "Of course, this is my future," O'Neill said. "When I committed myself to Aston Villa – something I said yesterday – there was no obstacle in the way. I'm really enjoying the job."

The "obstacle" of the Football Association coming knocking at O'Neill's door has yet to materialise, though surely it will. If any of the suits from Soho Square were present at the Riverside on Saturday they will have seen a glimpse of a possible England to come – with an animated O'Neill on the touchline, with the razor-sharp Gabriel Agbonlahor threatening to cut the opposition to shreds every time he touched the ball, with Gareth Barry pulling the strings in central midfield, Ashley Young doing the same out wide and Scott Carson keeping a clean sheet (albeit after a nervy start).

Barry prompted the opening goal, brilliantly finished on the turn by John Carew in first-half injury-time, and Agbonlahor scored the third, after controlling a punt upfield by Carson in the 59th minute. Middlesbrough started brightly enough but imploded alarmingly once Villa nosed in front. They have scored just twice in five games and are starting to look like a cross between Newcastle United and Sunderland in defence.

"The way we're playing at the moment would test anyone's patience," Southgate said, addressing the jeers from the home fans that greeted the final whistle. "We deserve to be in the position we're in. We have to work together to get out of it."

Goals: Carew (45) 0-1; Mellberg (48) 0-2; Agbonlahor (59) 0-3.

Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; L Young, Woodgate, Wheater, Pogatetz; O'Neil, Cattermole (Rochemback, 54), Boateng, Johnson; Downing; Aliadiere (Hutchinson, 75). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Tuncay, A Taylor.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Mellberg, Knight, Laursen (Davies, 84), Bouma; Petrov (Gardner, 79), Reo-Coker, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew (Maloney, 75). Substitutes not used: S Taylor (gk), Moore.

Referee: K Stroud (Hampshire).

Booked: Middlesbrough Cattermole, Downing; Villa Reo-Coker.

Man of the match: Agbonlahor.

Attendance: 23,900.

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Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)

In the word of his manager, "fantastic" – a constant threat with his pace in attack. Boro's Adam Johnson was a threat in the first-half but enjoyed scant service after the interval.