O'Neill rejects 'irksome' report that Milner is top summer target for City

Villa manager says speculation about a £24m move is distracting on eve of important game and pledges to keep his squad together
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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, has dismissed speculation linking England midfielder James Milner with a £24 million summer move to Manchester City.

Milner, who has two years left on his contract with Villa, has also been tipped as a target for Manchester United. But Villa, who paid £12m to sign Milner from Newcastle United two years ago, plan to open contract talks with him at the end of the season.

Commenting on the Milner rumours, O'Neill said: "It is irksome at this stage of the season. It doesn't do anyone any favours, particularly because the player has had a fantastic time and is enjoying his football immensely here. He has had a really brilliant time, particularly since moving into the middle of midfield and I am delighted for him.

"James is still under contract with us and it's a case of dampening fires that weren't there in the first place. We want the best players to stay here at Aston Villa so we can keep the momentum going. But I have kind of accepted it now. If it is not James it will be Ashley Young and if it is not Ashley it might be Richard Dunne and then someone else the following week."

O'Neill also denied he knew of any contact from City about the prospect of Milner moving to Eastlands in the summer. "It has got ridiculous now and I can categorically say that I have not heard anything from Manchester City," he said. "I spoke to my chief executive late yesterday evening and he never mentioned it so I assume they have not been in touch with him either.

"You almost get the impression that stories are put in there to kind of upset you at this stage of the season. It was interesting to hear Arsène Wenger talking about Barcelona and having to rebuff stories about someone who was under contract at Arsenal. They are having to get Barcelona to make statements about them not coming after a player."

O'Neill, meanwhile, has told his side they cannot afford any "slips" as they bid to keep alive their attempt to up qualify for the Champions League at relegation-threatened Hull tonight. Villa's win at Portsmouth on Sunday reignited their hopes of finishing fourth and securing a lucrative place in the Champions League.

But O'Neill knows it will be tough to win the battle for a top-four finish as they have a testing run-in and even a place in the Europa League is far from assured. Hull will be fighting for their lives, while Villa entertain arch rivals Birmingham before tackling Manchester City who have their own Champions League aspirations.

Villa's final game of the season is at home against Blackburn and O'Neill said: "There are no easy games. We are playing catch up, we know that and have been doing that for a few weeks and the situation is really straightforward. It is that we cannot afford to slip and we have to win our games.

"Even then, if we win all our games it is not entirely in our own hands. But the other run-ins that the other teams have are particularly difficult. I think everyone's is difficult and we have just got keep going. That is why winning so late on at Portsmouth last weekend was important to us and that is the attitude that we will take into the game. In fairness, that is the attitude we have taken into the last few months even though we might have not had the wins that perhaps our play deserved."

With Hull battling for their Premier League survival, the stakes are high for both sides. Iain Dowie was brought in by Hull to try to guide them to safety and O'Neill knows what a tough task he faces. "It is difficult," added O'Neill. "I think it is too easy for people to say you just need a change of manager and everything will be all right. It is just not as simple as that at all."

Villa, who will leapfrog Liverpool into sixth with a victory at Hull, will not allow themselves to be distracted by the plight of Dowie's team as their sole focus is on taking 12 points from their final four games.

"Where there is life there is hope," said O'Neill. "Anything can happen in the last four games. To give ourselves a chance we have to win every single game. Of course, you need a little luck here and there. We will keep battling and while the chance is there we are going for it. It is really vital that we win the games to give ourselves a chance of European football in any description."

O'Neill also backed midfielder Fabian Delph to bounce back strongly after he was ruled out for up to eight months with a knee ligament injury. Delph was injured in training last Saturday when he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee.

The England Under-21 international will have to undergo reconstructive surgery and O'Neill said: "He will recover from it. These things were career-threatening about a quarter of a century ago but nowadays players recover from them very well and just take it as a normal injury, albeit one that takes longer to recover from."

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