Patience wearing thin as O'Leary's Villa crumble

Manager's future depends on derbies with West Brom tomorrow and Birmingham next week as slide towards relegation alarms fans. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

David O'Leary is appealing to Aston Villa supporters - oh no he isn't, comes the pantomime-like cry from the Holte End - to focus any dissent on him in tomorrow's home derby against West Bromwich Albion rather than on the youngest side he has fielded in three seasons at the club.

Villa loyalists are alarmed by their slide towards the relegation zone in a position just above neighbouring Albion and Birmingham City, who visit Villa Park in another potentially momentous local encounter next week, and they have turned on the former Leeds United manager lately.

Some 4,000 anti-O'Leary badges will be circulated at the game, taking their theme from the first half of the slogan on a banner at the last home match. "We're not fickle," it read, turning one of his utterances against him. "We just don't like you." But the Irishman said yesterday that the fans' frustrations were justified, adding that the hostility towards him was "not a bad thing" because it took the heat off "the kids".

"Pressure comes with the job," O'Leary said. "I can handle it. The young kids can't. My message to the fans is that we've got to rally round them. We can't make them nervous. We must get behind them, help and encourage them. They are good kids and want to do well for us.

"There is probably no other team in this league with so many inexperienced players in. They will run and they will give you effort. They'll make mistakes, too, because that's what kids do. But they are the future of Aston Villa and we need all our fans to get behind them."

The absence of the injured Olof Mellberg, Mark Delaney, Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen means Gary Cahill, 20, will be given his first start in the Premiership in a central defensive partnership with Liam Ridgewell, a comparative veteran of 21. Gabby Agbonlohor, 18, Luke Moore, 22, and Peter Whittingham, 21, are also likely to feature alongside Steven Davis, a linchpin at 21, in what O'Leary billed as "a very young team".

There are superficial similarities with the way he blooded Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith as teenagers at Leeds, where he went through a spell of drooling about "my babies". The difference is that their promotion was based on the favourable impression they had made on him in the reserves, not on a large casualty list blighting a small squad.

"Yes, it's a big game to throw Cahill in for, but this isn't David O'Leary being brave," said the man who made his own debut in the same position for Arsenal at the tender age of 17. "We've got no choice. It's got to be done. It's sink or swim and hopefully he'll swim really well." Seasoned Villa-watchers, mindful of the three-year cycle that tends to represent the lifespan of Villa managers under Doug Ellis' chairmanship, view the back-to-back derbies in similar terms. O'Leary has recently had the look of a man who is drowning not waving. A verbal attack on the Birmingham Mail's Villa reporter, whom he dismissed as an Albion supporter with "an agenda", and even a personal "vendetta" against him, was especially ill-judged.

The side are in 16th place, exactly where Graham Taylor left them when he resigned at the end of 2002-03, and could yet be sucked into the relegation reckoning if the Albion and Birmingham games were to go badly for them. Several O'Leary buys - notably Eric Djemba-Djemba, Mathieu Berson and Wilfred Bouma - have failed to impress, and there is a belief among fans that he is forever talking down Villa and seeking to lower expectations.

His team appear eminently capable of doing that themselves, winning one of their past nine matches. If ever a fixture list resembled a get-out-of-jail card, however, it is Villa's, with Manchester City and Sunderland also due to visit B6. Set against that is the fact that they have won only once at home in 2006 and four times altogether. Villa Park has become not so much a fortress, more a bouncy castle. And despite their wins this season at St Andrew's and The Hawthorns, Villa have yet to prevail in four home derbies since their two nearest rivals joined Villa in the top flight.

"The fans are right. They're frustrated. So am I," O'Leary said when pressed about the rumblings against him. "It has been an inconsistent, poor season. Hopefully we can get through to the summer and there might be various things happening at the club." Talk of a consortium buying out Ellis' controlling interest lingers on, more than six months after it surfaced. There is no guarantee, though, that new owners would want O'Leary to remain in charge.

In the meantime, in another season of drift and disillusionment, one thing is clear. Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce, once comrades in arms and now companions in distress, would love to drag Villa into the relegation equation over the next two Sundays. O'Leary, for one, accepts that they are embroiled in a dogfight of the kind from which his own, illustrious playing career kept him immune.

"I've never been in this situation before, as a player or a manager, and I don't like it. The players are aware that we're not out of trouble. They don't need me to remind them that 35 points may not be enough. I've been saying that you're not safe until you've got the points that mean you can't go down. But it's in our hands. In the space of eight days we can reach safety. So many things can happen in that time. A week is a long time in football. You could win two games."

You could also lose them, in which case it is difficult to see O'Leary surviving as Villa manager. "I'll deal with that," he said tersely after the doomsday scenario was put to him, "after these next two matches."

l Aston Villa have announced a new shirt sponsorship deal with internet gaming company 32Red. The firm's logo will replace that of DWS Investments for two seasons starting after the current campaign. The Villa sales director Stuart Ryan said the deal "could be worth a healthy seven-figure sum per season".