O'Leary hopes for happy return

Aston Villa's manager looks forward to nostalgic Boxing Day return to Elland Road
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The Independent Football

Two managers sacked by Leeds United will patrol the technical areas when the Premiership's second-bottom club face Aston Villa today - and David O'Leary is confident that Eddie Gray will not be the only one taking the acclaim of the Elland Road faithful.

Gray, who was in charge at Leeds two decades ago and was later O'Leary's No 2 there, is guaranteed a warm ovation after their four-match unbeaten run since he returned as caretaker manager. The Irishman's reception is less predictable because of his perceived role in Leeds' parlous financial state, but the man now guiding Villa is adamant his "fantastic relationship" with their followers remains intact.

Relishing the meeting of two form sides - Villa have won five of the past six - O'Leary said: "It'll be strange going back with another team. But I'm not apprehensive; I know I'll be well treated. I did an FA Cup tie for TV last season and the gantry was right above the Leeds crowd. They were cheering me so loudly that Richard Keys couldn't hear me.

"Then when we played Leeds in a pre-season fixture in Dublin, 10,000 Leeds fans chanted my name. So I don't have anything to worry about going back. I had a fantastic relationship with them. It's not my style to go and stick two fingers up, The people that sacked me aren't there now anyway," he added, declining to refer to Peter Ridsdale by name.

"I always think of my last game at Leeds. We'd beaten Middlesbrough to qualify for Europe again. I walked round the pitch and the crowd were brilliant to me. I had no idea what was coming. But I enjoyed my time there. It's a great club. I hope I can do at Villa what I did there."

Villa are one of a clutch of teams in the bizarre position of knowing a flurry of wins would put them in contention for a Champions' League place while three defeats could leave them in the relegation mire.

This anomaly has led some pundits to claim it is the lowest-quality Premiership since its inception in 1992. Au contraire, says the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger. He rates it the best, a view endorsed by his touchline adversary today, Wolves' Dave Jones.

Jones took the 20th-placed side to Arsenal this month for a Carling Cup tie and saw them lose 5-1 to an understudies' XI. Yet he still maintains that "the bottom team can quite easily beat the one that's top", and since Arsenal are "only" second, perhaps the Wolves win that the bookies rate an astonishing 16-1 shot is not so far-fetched after all.

"It's an incredibly competitive division, which if anything has got tougher and stronger each year," said the Wolves manager, who had previous experience of keeping Southampton among the elite. "That's why it's harder for clubs coming up. Because of the transfer window, you can't build during a season or bring players in if you get injuries."

Having lunched with Wolves' new chairman, Rick Hayward, on Christmas Eve, Jones said he hoped to sign "a couple of fresh faces" in January. But he warned: "It's going to be difficult with the funds we have."

Wolves, who were unfortunate to leave Villa Park empty-handed last Sunday, also entertain Leeds before New Year. "People say we should be beating those clubs, but they are established and have spent big money over the years. We're trying to establish a foothold at this level."

Undaunted by the fact that no club has survived after propping up the Premiership at Christmas, Jones admitted: "The only people who think we've got a chance are ourselves."

Liverpool's tussle with Bolton at Anfield is also a re-run of a recent Carling Cup fixture, which Sam Allardyce's side won. These are heady days for Bolton, but despite an exotic line-up they retain an unglamorous image. Just the kind of opponents, ominously for Gérard Houllier, that the Liverpool crowd find the failure to beat hardest to stomach.

Southampton's visit to Fulham is, somewhat implausibly, a match that could have a bearing on who takes the fourth Champions' League berth. It also pits two coveted strikers against each other - Louis Saha, for whom Fulham last week turned down £10m from Manchester United, and James Beattie - so expect a goalless draw.

Everton, who go to Old Trafford today, were four minutes away from a barren stalemate there last season when Manchester United blitzed them with three goals. United, a point clear at the top, were five behind Arsenal at this stage a year ago and yet they went on to become champions.

There were signs at Tottenham on Sunday that Sir Alex Ferguson is using the Rio Ferdinand affair to fuel United's already-formidable unity, although Roy Keane (hamstring) is a probable absentee.

Third-placed Chelsea, despite their £110m outlay, step out at Charlton today one rung lower than on last Boxing Day. This time, though, they look equipped to stay the course. Worryingly for their rivals, Claudio Ranieri is likely to throw more roubles at the market next month.

Micky Adams will not be competing with him. For the Leicester manager, staying up will be a triumph. "Not being in the bottom three at Christmas has given everybody a boost," he said. Leicester's 4,000th League fixture, at home to Newcastle, sees the reunion of the still-prolific former striking partners Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer, who only seem to have been around as long as Christmas itself.

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