O'Neill to take over at Villa as Ellis pulls off coup

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Martin O'Neill is expected to bring his 15-month exile from football to an end today by officially accepting Doug Ellis's invitation to replace David O'Leary as the new manager of Aston Villa.

Though the future ownership of the Midlands club remains clouded in uncertainty, with four consortiums currently attempting to convince Ellis that they possess both the wealth and the strategy to take the club forward, the veteran chairman has staged his own coup by convincing the former Celtic coach and one-time candidate for the England job to take control.

It is believed Villa could be in a position to announce O'Neill's appointment today, with the Ulsterman meeting his new squad for the first time tomorrow at the start of their nine-day pre-season tour of Germany and the Netherlands.

O'Neill's appointment will delight not only the consortiums interested in buying out Ellis for a figure of around £64m, but the Villa Park faithful who have staged protests against the club chairman for several years and whose disillusionment at his regime reached a peak when the unpopular O'Leary departed four weeks ago.

The Ulsterman has resisted numerous job offers since leaving Celtic at the end of the 2004-05 season to care for his ill wife, Geraldine, interest in his undoubted managerial skills arriving from Middlesbrough and Sunderland among others, plus the Football Association, who interviewed O'Neill at length before opting for Steve McClaren.

Ellis may be in no hurry to accept the offer of the American billionaire Randy Lerner to buy Aston Villa - though the owner of the NFL side Cleveland Browns remains the favourite to assume control - or indeed the proposals presented by a group of investors fronted by Sven Goran Eriksson's agent, Athole Still, Nicholas Padfield's AV06 group and a fourth consortium led by Michael Neville, a local businessman. But the Villa chairman has been anxious to have his preferred managerial candidate in place ahead of the new Premiership season and looks to have landed his man after almost a fortnight of negotiations and assurances to O'Neill.

The goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, had been placed in temporary charge of the tour of Germany and the Netherlands, which commences this morning, after the caretaker manager and former assistant to O'Leary, Roy Aitken, withdrew on health grounds.

Steele, a popular member of the Villa back-room staff who has taken on a wider coaching role since O'Leary left the club, could find his stay in charge lasting all of 24 hours, however, if O'Neill commences work with immediate effect having decided that he can work with any consortium that eventually takes over.

Lerner held further talks with Ellis yesterday and is favourite to complete a deal that looked signed and sealed last week only to be derailed by an unforeseen late hitch. Rival consortiums are continuing to study their options, with the groups fronted by Padfield, a deputy High Court judge, and that of Neville in negotiations to form an alliance next week.

Padfield, who is on holiday in Corsica, is due to meet the Villa board on Tuesday to take his consortium's claims forward. "We have been approached by representatives from other consortia who have already put their hats in the ring," he revealed yesterday. "One is a representative of Mr Neville. We are considering opening discussions with them but haven't taken a firm decision."

The leading barrister added: "I have had no discussions with Mr Ellis at all and all of us find it surprising that no one from the club has bothered to tell us what the position is as regards whether any formal offers have been made or indeed the position as regards appointing a manager.

"One of the crucial issues is the extent to which Doug Ellis wants to retain a stake in the club or whether he is prepared to sell his entire shareholding. The other critical issue is what the position is as regards the team manager - has one been appointed, is one going to be appointed, the nature of his contract etc? This will impact on the amount of finance available to buy new players."

O'Neill's tried and trusted back-room team of John Robertson - a former team-mate at Nottingham Forest - and Steve Walford are set to link up with him.

O'Neill is the kind of inspirational figure needed to lift Villa out of the doldrums with the club only just avoiding relegation from the Premiership in 2005-2006.

He cut his managerial teeth at Shepshed Charterhouse, Grantham and Wycombe Wanderers before performing wonders with an average group of players at Leicester.

O'Neill guided the Foxes to four successive top-10 finishes in the Premiership and two League Cup final triumphs. Then he went to Celtic in 2000 and transformed their fortunes in wresting Scottish dominance away from Rangers.

He has been linked with numerous other management jobs, including Newcastle, Middlesbrough and England. But the chance to put Villa back towards the top of the footballing tree looks like being the challenge O'Neill has been waiting for.