O'Neill bristles at Villa's season hitting the wall

Bolton Wanderers 1 Aston Villa 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill feels that Everests are being made out of the bumps in Aston Villa's run-in to the season. "I had a look at the league table," he said with some scorn. "I thought we had been relegated."

The Aston Villa manager was using exaggeration in a hunt for perspective but facts do not lie. His team, who had appeared to be destined for a Champions League place, have deflated so miserably that they have taken four points from their last 27. That is relegation form, no matter what O'Neill may think of his critics.

Now fourth place is unlikely and, if Everton had not distracted themselves with an FA Cup final, fifth might be in jeopardy too. The Europa League will be some compensation next season, but compared to what might have been it is a frustratingly light prize.

O'Neill was in no mood for negativity and was counting the blessings of Villa's league position and the knowledge gained for another attempt at the top four. "It's been a really great effort," he said. "We've fallen short and if you are asking about lessons, we have used less players than anybody else in the league and if you are going to compete you need the quality and size of squad."

One player of quality is Ashley Young, whose form has mirrored his team's. Irresistible until January, he now often looks sweatshop weary, but also conjures tricks that would draw gasps from Lionel Messi. The fact his goal was his first for 18 matches tells its own story and even that was fortunate because it was a cross that curled into the net. "It was one of those where you put the ball in the danger area," Young said, "and luckily for me it went in off the post. I am not trying to pretend that I meant it."

As for explaining Villa hitting the wall, he was as nonplussed as everyone else. "I don't know why, I don't think anyone at the club can put their finger on it. Every team has a spell, and it is the way you bounce back from it."

A point at Bolton Wanderers is a good result in any circumstances, although it was the home team, inching towards the safety of 40 points, who were more satisfied. Gary Megson pointed out his substitutes bench did not cost a penny and it was a cut-price signing, Tamir Cohen, who got the equaliser. "This result helps us along the way and another win should see us stay up. What we did do well was we worked our socks off. We've had to do it with loans, kids who have come through the ranks and free transfers," Megson said. In many ways Bolton's achievement is greater than Villa's.

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, A O'Brien (Puygrenier, 78), Samuel; McCann; K Davies, Muamba, Cohen (Basham, 87), Taylor; Elmander. Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Hunt, Riga, Smolarek, Makukula.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Knight, Davies, Shorey; Milner, Petrov, Barry, Young; Carew, Heskey (Delfouneso, 76). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Salifou, Gardner, Albrighton, Clark.

Referee: L Probert (Gloucestershire).

Booked: Aston Villa: Barry.

Man of the match: A O'Brien.

Attendance: 21,709.