Villa in chaos as O'Leary's reign ends

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Aston Villa today begin the search for a new manager - less than a month before they visit Arsenal's new stadium on the first day of the Premiership season - after their mid-summer crisis led to what the Midlands club claimed to be an "amicable parting" with David O'Leary last night.

Twenty-four hours after the 48-year-old former Leeds United manager appeared before a three-man panel looking into who was responsible for a statement by players who were critical of the Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, the club issued a statement of their own. It cleared O'Leary of involvement in the mutiny, yet stated that Villa deemed the time right for a change - with the names of Martin O'Neill and Alan Curbishley sure to figure prominently in fans' polls over the coming days.

The statement followed six hours of talks at Villa Park between O'Leary, his representatives and club officials, including Ellis after he interrupted his holiday to fly home. A compensation package - thought to be worth around £2m to O'Leary - was being thrashed out by lawyers. The statement, in which care was taken not to use the word "sacked", read: "On 17 July, Aston Villa plc announced that the board had set up an internal enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the publication of a statement purportedly from the entire first-team squad.

"That enquiry has now completed its investigations. Although no misconduct by David O'Leary was uncovered, it has been agreed that an amicable parting of the ways was in the interests of all parties. Accordingly, a compensation package reflecting the situation has been established and it has been mutually agreed to terminate David O'Leary's contract with immediate effect."

The players' statement, which was put together by a local-newspaper reporter last Friday, had accused Ellis, 82, of penny-pinching in terms of spending on players and facilities, and of not having ambition. The chairman, who was on holiday on his yacht off the coast of Majorca at the time, was furious about what he saw as untruths being peddled. He resolved to find out whether O'Leary had effectively "set up" the statement by inviting the journalist in question to the players' lounge at the Bodymoor Heath training complex.

Leading players, including the goalkeeper Thomas Sorenson, also gave evidence to the panel convened by Ellis and headed by the club's operations director, Steve Stride. Several of the squad were known to be disaffected with O'Leary, although Kevin Phillips, a senior professional, had backed him in an attempt to smooth over the situation on Tuesday.

Dave Woodhall, editor of the Villa fanzine Heroes & Villans, articulated the "plague-on-both-their-houses" views of many fans. "Villa are now halfway to recovery," he said, hailing O'Leary's exit as a positive move. "Now Ellis should go. He really shouldn't be running a football club in the 21st century."

O'Neill has emerged as a favourite, though whether he would feel he could work under Ellis may be questionable. Curbishley, who left Charlton at the end of last season, had a spell at Villa as a player.