Villa open the gates and 4,000 flood in to watch training

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The Independent Online

The man himself would be loath to admit that such a phenomenon exists but as thousands of fans, not exclusively young, flooded into Villa Park to watch a Premiership football team doing no more than practise yesterday it was difficult not to conclude that here was living evidence of the Martin O'Neill effect.

The occasion was a Villa training session thrown open to free public access, not O'Neill's idea but one given his full approval and received with enormous enthusiasm. When the gates into the ground opened at 9.30 am there was a queue of 800 or so waiting to go in; by the time the session began a little over an hour later the crowd had swelled to approaching 4,000.

This is at club which had fallen so far out of favour with some of its supporters not many months ago that there were calls to boycott matches and demonstrations against the former chairman were commonplace. The notion of an open house then would have been dismissed as unthinkable, an invitation to players and management to be berated in their own time, as if match days were not enough.

But as O'Neill emerged into view, leading his players from the tunnel, the reaction was of undiluted warmth. He may have been in charge at Villa only a matter of weeks but already the affection he enjoyed - and still enjoys - at Wycombe Wanderers, Leicester City and Celtic is taking root in Birmingham too.

"It helps that the team is doing well," O'Neill observed wryly after watching his players put through their paces by the first-team coach, Steve Walford, and the fitness coach, Jim Hendry, in an atmosphere far removed from the remote complex at Bodymoor Heath where training normally takes place.

"It is a chance for the players to acquaint themselves with the normal supporter and while it might not be something you would do on a regular basis it is fine once a season or so.

"My own view is that the alienation of players from fans is greater now than ever before and while I'm not saying we will ever go back to the days of Stanley Matthews travelling to the Stoke ground on a bus full of supporters it is a chance for close contact between supporters and players that does no harm at all.

"I must stress that it was not my idea but when we did it at Celtic the players did not mind and it was a huge success. So I've gone along with it here and I'm pleased I have done."

Sandwiched between Villa's 120-minute Carling Cup tie last Tuesday and tomorrow's trip to Liverpool, it was perhaps not the most testing session for the players. But it did at least include a goal for Milan Baros, something yet to be witnessed even in Villa's 11-game unbeaten start to the season, and a favourable response from the sometimes media-shy Czech.

"It is good for the fans and nice for the players to train at the main ground," he said. "If they wanted to organise something like it again I would have no problem."

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