Aston Villa were accelerating their pursuit of Alex McLeish last night, despite a growing sense of anger among fans which culminated in a 600-strong protest outside Villa Park.
Villa owner Randy Lerner's discussions with McLeish extended into last evening at a secret location in London and were said to have progressed positively and productively. The Scot's succession of Gérard Houllier as manager could be announced as early as today. Birmingham have not followed up on their threat to report Villa to the Premier League for what City's chief executive Peter Pannu claims is a "tap-up attempt" of McLeish. It is understood that City may not now pursue that avenue and that they have also cooled on the idea of seeking an injunction preventing McLeish's move. In a considerable softening of their stance, City will focus their attention on defending the former manager's claims of constructive dismissal and are unlikely to secure the £5.4m compensation first mooted.
Villa instead faced opposition on a home front, with supporters massing on the steps of the Holte End last night after security staff had initially refused them access into the stadium. Despite the initial stand-off, the protest was peaceful, if raucous. Earlier in the day, club staff arrived at the Bodymoor Heath training complex to see "Bluenose scum not welcome" scrawled in white paint on the brick wall by the entrance. "SOTC" – which stands for "S*** on the City" – was also sprayed down a gate post.
It was a graphic message to Lerner and his chief executive Paul Faulkner, who had not appointed Steve McClaren last week because of online opposition but were informed last night that nearly 16,000 fans had registered support for the "We don't want Alex McLeish" Facebook page.
Though the Premier League may compel Villa to appear before a hearing if it deems the approach to be illegal, City's new attitude suggests that an arbitration tribunal to discuss McLeish's constructive dismissal claims is more likely. Lerner's outlay over 12 months on managers may rise to £14.6m if McLeish does put pen to paper on a four-year deal – in the region of £2m a year.
Villa's expenditure began when they had to reach agreement with their former manager Martin O'Neill, who claimed constructive dismissal after parting company with the club last summer. Then they thrashed out a financial package for his replacement, Houllier, who ended his Villa reign two weeks ago because of concerns over his health. In addition Villa may have to compensate City should McLeish's backroom team of coaches, Peter Grant as well as Andy and Dave Watson, join him.
Alan Curbishley, who was playing for Birmingham when Ron Saunders moved from Villa to take charge of City nearly 30 years ago, said McLeish faced some "tricky times" ahead. "When Ron Saunders went from Villa to Birmingham there was uproar," Curbishley said.