The "Martin O'Neill quits Aston Villa" stories emerged 48 hours too early to be an April Fools' Day scam, but the events of the past week may represent the first cracks in the brave new world ushered in by the partnership of O'Neill and Villa's American owner Randy Lerner formed four years ago this summer.
O'Neill has arguably been the most popular manager in Villa's history. The Northern Irishman's name is still chanted incessantly by the Holte End, whose denizens have taken to him in the way they once revered Brian Little as a player.
But with that affection comes expectations. Villa are not a Birmingham City, delighted simply to be in the top half of the Premier League. This is a club who have achieved what Arsenal have never done, and that is lift the European Cup.
Now, however, as another campaign rich in promise threatens to fizzle out, there are indications that some supporters – still a small minority at the moment – are showing signs of disenchantment. It is currently directed more against the team than against O'Neill. Villa were booed by their own fans after the 2-2 home draw with lowly Wolves a fortnight ago. The message boards also crackled with criticism of the players – and yes, the manager, too – following the 7-1 capitulation at Chelsea last Saturday.
To keep matters in perspective, it should be pointed out that O'Neill led Villa to Wembley in February for the first time since 2000, although they were beaten by Manchester United in the Carling Cup final. They are also still in contention for the FA Cup and face Chelsea, of all clubs, in the semi-final at Wembley a week on Saturday.
But fourth place in the league, and the prize of a potentially lucrative tilt at Champions League qualification, was Villa's principal target. Though they could yet snatch it from under the noses of Tottenham, Manchester City or Liverpool, it looks an increasingly forlorn task.
For the first time, fans are articulating the notion that perhaps O'Neill has taken Villa as far as he can or is likely to. While those who make that point tend to be branded disloyal, a raft of observations about his management style, which some might call complaints, have gained currency.
One concerns Villa's tendency to burn out in the second half of the season. They did it last March, which they entered with genuine prospects of squeezing Arsenal out of the top four, and results suggest something similar has occurred this time.
Which brings us to another of the dissenters' assertions, namely that O'Neill does not rotate his squad sufficiently. With a playing style in which relentless running is a key component – again, some among the small band of sceptics say his tactics are one-dimensional – the theory goes that players are literally running out of energy by the time the run-in comes around.
O'Neill has appeared more sensitive to criticism of late, saying yesterday that "I must stand up for myself". He points out the disparity between the club today – back in the upper echelons of the English game and on course for Europe again – and the dispirited under-achievers he and Lerner took over from David O'Leary and Doug Ellis in 2006.
Unlike O'Leary, though, he has had resources – presiding over a net spend of nearly £90m on players – but has still not delivered any silverware. O'Neill's stock remains high on the Holte, but if Chelsea continue their mastery over Villa, unfavourable comparisons may be made with Little's reign as manager, which in 1995-96, his first full season in charge, produced fourth place, an FA Cup semi-final and triumph in the League Cup.Reuse content