O'Leary at risk as Villa investigate 'team statement'

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David O'Leary's three-year tenure as manager of Aston Villa could be under threat after the Premiership club last night announced an internal inquiry into the joint statement - critical of the octogenarian chairman, Doug Ellis - purportedly issued by the players last week.

A three-man panel, comprising Villa's long-serving operations director, Steve Stride, and two non-executive directors, David Owen and Steve Kind, has been formed. Its brief will be to look into the "circumstances surrounding the so-called player statement allegedly supported by the entire first-team squad" and to "establish the facts".

Ellis is thought to be furious about the statement, which portrayed him as penny-pinching. The club initially maintained that the players had denied any knowledge of it, but the panel will now interview members of the squad. If it finds O'Leary was behind its publication, he is likely to pay with his job.

Should he be sacked, he will be eligible for a £1.7m pay-off. O'Leary, 48, has been strongly linked with the vacancy at Sunderland since his fellow Irishman Niall Quinn took over the Wearside club.

The "mutiny" statement, which was issued to the media last Friday, claimed that there was dressing-room unrest because of cost-cutting measures enforced by Ellis. He was alleged to have refused to water the training ground because of a £300 charge and to have trimmed the backroom staff to the extent that players were having to hire their own private masseurs.

Ellis has dismissed the stories, but is angry that he and the club have been exposed to ridicule. His relationship with O'Leary has been uneasy for some time, the chairman being annoyed by the manager's briefings to journalists over what he sees as Villa's inadequate transfer budget and lack of ambition.