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Villa aim to snatch Heskey from Liverpool's clutches

O'Neill moves to secure Wigan forward despite informal Anfield agreement

Martin O'Neill has launched a late bid to steal Emile Heskey away from Liverpool by signing the Wigan Athletic striker for Aston Villa this month. It is understood that Villa and Wigan are already in negotiations over the player, who is likely to cost around £6m.

Heskey, 31, had an informal agreement to join Liverpool when his current contract expired in the summer. However, O'Neill had identified the England striker, whom he managed at Leicester City, as the man to help push Villa on to qualify for the Champions League this season and improving his £40,000-a-week wages should not impact on Villa's unwillingness to pay beyond £60,000-a-week.

There is no love lost between O'Neill and Rafael Benitez over last summer's bad-tempered Gareth Barry transfer saga and signing Heskey now would make for a particularly sweet revenge for the Villa manager. Wigan have already taken steps to fill the gap left by Heskey by signing Mido from Middlesbrough on a loan deal until the end of the season. They are close to finalising the £4.5m signing of the Colombian striker Hugo Rodallega as a long-term replacement for Heskey.

It remains to be seen whether Liverpool will attempt to move the signing of Heskey forward to this month in order to trump Villa. Given Benitez's recent complaints about the slow response of his chief executive Rick Parry on transfers it will be an interesting test of the fragile peace at Anfield. At Liverpool, Heskey will have to be content with the role of Fernando Torres' understudy. For Wigan the deal makes sense because they will lose Heskey in the summer for nothing and, in seventh position, 10 points off the relegation zone, they are in a strong position to keep their Premier League status. As one of the club's two top earners, along with goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, on £40,000-a-week, the sale of Heskey will also free up some of the wage bill which takes up a substantial part of Wigan's turnover.

Heskey has re-established himself as a major figure within the England team under Fabio Capello despite a woeful international goal-scoring record of five in 50 caps. He worked with O'Neill at the start of his career. They both left Leicester in the summer of 2000, Heskey to join Liverpool and O'Neill to take over as manager of Celtic. "Martin O'Neill was a big influence on me," Heskey said recently. "He was the first manager who really gave me the freedom to express myself, who encouraged me to play."

O'Neill is hopeful of signing another centre-back as well this month although West Ham have told Villa that their first target, Matthew Upson, is not available. The Villa manager will also try to recoup some funds by selling Marlon Harewood. The striker John Carew has not played since November because of a back injury but is now back in training with the first-team.

Armed with the cash from the £14m sale of Wilson Palacios to Tottenham Hotspur, Wigan have been made aware that Stephen Hunt had a £5m buy-out clause inserted into the last contract he signed at Reading. That was following the collapse of his move to Sunderland, this time last year, for the same amount.

Reading offered the 27-year-old Republic of Ireland international a new contract at the end of the last January transfer window, which was for three-and-a-half years, which he signed but only on the insistence of a get-out clause.

Hunt is desperate to play in the Premier League and despite Reading's success so far this season in the Championship, where they are on course for automatic promotion, he would rather return sooner. However, according to sources, it is understood Hunt had hoped to attract a bigger club than Wigan although he will move to the JJB Stadium if they are the only bidders.

Reading have already signed another Irishman, Jay Tabb, from Coventry City for £300,000 but insist he has not been acquired as Hunt's replacement although they are also interested in another winger, who could fit the bill, Barnsley's Jamal Campbell-Ryce.

Wigan are also believed to be close to off-loading Olivier Kapo, who has failed to settle since his £3.5m move from Birmingham City in the summer and may return to France on loan while they plan to again try and sign Hendry Thomas, from Deportivo Olimpico, the former club of Palacios and left-back Maynor Figueroa.