Martin O'Neill has said there is a different "mindset" in the Premier League this season which could finally lead to the end of the "monopoly" of the so-called "big four" clubs, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Ahead of today's vital league meeting with Arsenal – with third-placed Aston Villa two places and two points ahead of Arsène Wenger's beleaguered side – O'Neill said it was the "duty" of clubs such as his to now "come and compete" with those who have dominated the Champions League places in recent campaigns.
"I think we have improved in two years, there's no getting away from that," O'Neill claimed of his own vibrant young team. "I don't know if it's an end to the 'big four' but I think that for other football clubs it's not just their ambition but it's their job, their duty to come and try and compete. That's what I think. Especially if you have a decent home following and we have a decent home following. We have 38,000 people at games and the football club has the history, so therefore why shouldn't it feel as if it can be part of it? What I think the 'top four' have done should give hope for everyone else that they can go and do it. It shouldn't be, 'That's them, let them go and play in a little league of their own'."
When it was put to him that perhaps that had been the belief of managers at other clubs in recent seasons, with little sign of it ever changing, O'Neill replied: "That's true. Well then I'm hoping that there will now be a different mindset. The only way that that will set in properly is when teams do actually break in. In the past few years, Everton have been the only team to have done it but not on a consistent basis."
O'Neill strongly believes that the league has become more competitive and, understandably, dismisses the notion that it has been caused by the "big four" dropping off in standard. Rather he believes that others, such as Villa, have raised theirs and are now capable of taking points where previously it was only a slim possibility.
"We are hard to beat," he said. "It's definitely more competitive. There are four teams who can definitely win the championship whereas before it was Arsenal and Man United. And then other teams are capable of taking points. So it's more competitive. And I do think that anyone who can break the monopoly, that would be great for the league. I genuinely believe that."
A victory at Villa Park today would give O'Neill's side an impressive league double over Arsenal – having triumphed 2-0 at the Emirates earlier this season – while the manager believes that "if the players can stay fit" his team will have "a better chance, by about four million miles" of finishing the season in the top four. The importance of a handful of key players – Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Gareth Barry, left, and Martin Laursen, who is unlikely to be fit today – should not be underestimated.
O'Neill has operated with fewer players than most managers this season, and is still managing with a smaller squad, which he hopes to remedy somewhat in the January transfer window with the recruitment of at least two players. A striker is the main priority, especially given John Carew's enduring injury problems, but he is also interested in a left-sided player and has inquired about Newcastle United's Charles N'Zogbia. Given the small squad size, it is unlikely that O'Neill will allow any players to leave but Marlon Harewood may go if the right striker is signed.
Villa's success so far this campaign will strengthen O'Neill's hand, along with the funds made available to him by the club's owner, Randy Lerner, although prising a top-level striker such as Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe, Craig Bellamy or Peter Crouch from their clubs at this stage of the season will be difficult.
"In January we'll be looking to see if we can do something in the market," O'Neill said. "It might not be possible. I heard other managers say that if they can't get the quality in they won't do anything. I'm not sure I will be that stubborn at the moment. I will get a couple in if I can possibly do that."
At the same time O'Neill is far too canny to write off Arsenal. Especially ahead of playing them. "While they will always be compared, unfavourably because they haven't won the championship, with that great side that went unbeaten, my own view is that they are excellent," O'Neill said. "You could not possibly write them off. They are too talented a team. They don't have the same consistency as last season, they went undefeated for a long time, so any defeats this season are naturally going to be considered a dropping off from last year."
Even if they lost today, and fell five points behind Villa and even further behind Liverpool and Chelsea, O'Neill said that he would not dismiss Arsenal because "they have been there for a long time" and would not regard falling behind his team as "an insurmountable task".
Nevertheless, three more points would provide a huge "psychological boost" for Villa, whose players were given slightly longer off yesterday, because of today's later kick-off and were not due to report to their team hotel until 9.30pm last night. "It's great for us to be in this position, but we have to accept that we have a distance to go," O'Neill said.
Playing the Villain: Villa's league finishes
Since last finishing fourth in 1996:
1996-97 5th under Brian Little
1997-98 7th, Little/John Gregory
1998-99 6th, John Gregory
1999-00 6th, John Gregory
2000-01 8th, John Gregory
2001-02 8th, Gregory/Graham Taylor
2002-03 16th, Graham Taylor
2003-04 6th, David O'Leary
2004-05 10th, David O'Leary
2005-06 16th, David O'Leary
2006-07 11th, Martin O'Neill
2007-08 6th, Martin O'Neill