At the Ladbrokes kiosk in the main stand at Middlesbrough yesterday, Martin O'Neill was being touted as the third favourite to be installed as the next manager of England at 6-1, behind Fabio Capello (2-1) and Jose Mourinho (7-2). At the side of the pitch the man himself enjoyed a highly profitable afternoon – performing his trademark leprechaun leaps as the goals flew in and his razor-sharp side cut Middlesbrough to shreds. It is business as usual for Aston Villa and their manager, it would seem. For the time being, at any rate.
Having spent some time running bookmaking businesses of his own in Nottinghamshire, O'Neill knows a thing or two about the laying of odds. Despite speaking on Friday about his commitment to Villa, and about not being deemed good enough at the interview process the last time around, it remains a fair bet that the committee men from the Football Association will come knocking on his door sooner rather than later. That was something they never did to Brian Clough after passing him over in favour of Ron Greenwood back in 1977.
In the meantime, the man who filled the wide-right midfield berth in Cloughie's Forest side, is managing very nicely, thank you. Yesterday's success – courtesy of a goal in first-half injury time by John Carew and second-half strikes by Olof Mellberg and the irrepressible Gabriel Agbonlahor – completed his first hat-trick of Premier League victories since joining Villa at the start of last season. There was also the satisfaction of a clean sheet, a sixth of the season, for Scott Carson, a villain for England last Wednesday night but a hero for Villa yesterday. "I thought Scott coped brilliantly," O'Neill said afterwards. "He was expecting a bit of stick and he certainly got it." Indeed, Carson's every touch was greeted by jeers from the home fans, and by chants of "England's number one", from the Villa supporters. It said much for his character that he survived all the pantomime attention, and also a nervy start.
The contest was barely a minute old when he sliced an attempted clearance kick and six minutes later a shot from Stewart Downing squirmed under his body and across the face of goal. It was a lucky escape for Villa and their on-loan goalkeeper but as half-time approached they gained in assurance, creating a succession of chances.
Agbonlahor – "fantastic today, fantastic against Birmingham, fantastic all season," his manager enthused afterwards – was at the sharp end of most of them, dragging a shot on the turn across the Middlesbrough goalmouth, steering a volley wide from close range, and having a penalty claim rejected when David Wheater appeared to tug his shirt tails.
It was Carew, though, who made the breakthrough, controlling a ball from Gareth Barry on his right thigh and turning to rifle a low shot that eluded the diving Mark Schwarzer. Three minutes into the second-half it was 2-0, Mellberg pouncing from close range after Lee Cattermole made a hash of attempting to clear a corner.
"You're getting sacked in the morning," the Villa fans taunted, and the suffering did not end there for Gareth Southgate, the one-time Villa captain battling against a tide of faltering form as Middlesbrough's manager.
Just before the hour mark Agbonlahor brilliantly controlled a punt upfield from Carson and fired a left-foot shot past Schwarzer.
It could have been worse for Middlesbrough and their manager, an Agbonlahor shot smacking off the right post as the game wound down. For those who had taken the 66-1 against a 4-0 Villa victory it was a moment of considerable pain.Reuse content