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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 July 2006, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Who is the Villain of the piece?

By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer

David O'Leary almost achieved Aston Villa's version of mission impossible - hitting a level of unpopularity that briefly threatened to rival the club's octogenarian ogre Doug Ellis.

Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis and manager David O'Leary
O'Leary has strenuously denied involvement in a "revolt"

"We're not fickle - we just don't like you" was one of last season's more memorable terrace banners as boss O'Leary's relationship with Villa fans deteriorated after a dismal campaign.

Villa chairman Ellis has been the villain of this long-running saga, but O'Leary was firmly in the firing line from fans as one of the game's great old clubs lurched from crisis to crisis.

Now, on the eve of a new season and Villa among the favourites for relegation, battle lines are drawn again and long-suffering supporters fear the worst.

Ellis has instigated an internal inquiry into a recent statement, allegedly supported by Villa's first-team squad, criticising the veteran chairman's regime.

O'Leary insists he had no prior knowledge of the statement, but telephone calls and security procedures are understood to be under scrutiny as part of a Villa investigation into how the criticism became public.

The unspoken message is that if the finger of suspicion points in any way towards O'Leary instigating the "revolt", he will be sacked.

Turmoil is once again Villa's watchword.

It is the latest blow for a huge and fiercely-loyal Villa fan base who have watched their club move away from being in European contention towards the relegation zone.

Jonathan Fear, spokesman for the Villa Fans Combined group, told BBC Sport: "The club is on its knees. Doug Ellis has turned the club into a joke and the only people not laughing are the fans and shareholders.

Anti-O'Leary banner at Villa Park
So who is the villain - is it O'Leary?

"It is crushing to see us like this. We don't feel we have a god-given right to silverware, but we would expect to be contenders. We used to be 9/2 for the title, now we are 9/2 for relegation. This is the legacy Ellis is in danger of leaving."

Fear believes O'Leary has to accept his share of responsibility, but is convinced the only way Villa can move forward is for 82-year-old Ellis to finally relinquish his hold on the club.

He said: "As I said, we are on our knees. It has been heading that way for a few years, which is what fans' groups like ours have been saying.

"There is collective responsibility, and there seem to be divisions all over Villa Park at the moment, and at a time when we need it desperately there is no leadership or direction. This should come from the very top.

"The finger of blame has to be pointed at Ellis because he is the one who has appointed managers. You also have to look at the players and manager for what happened last season, but they are doing jobs with their hands tied behind their backs."

Fear admits it is hard to envisage O'Leary coming through the latest wrangle, even if he is cleared of any involvement in the dressing room criticism of Ellis.

He said: "It is very difficult to see how he can survive. I'm surprised he wants to stay because his reputation is on the line and it was damaged by what happened last season.

"If Ellis is there at the start of the season, I'm not convinced O'Leary will be, but how can we attract players to Villa Park, or even a top manager, with the current state of affairs?"

O'Leary would lose an expensive pay-off if he quit, while Ellis is hardly likely to want to sign another massive cheque to a sacked manager - leaving Villa with the potential for a damaging stand-off.

Anti-Ellis banner at Villa Park
Or is "Deadly Doug" the man behind Villa's demise?

Fear added: "The club needs a clean sweep, but what will not wash is simply another new manager and the promise of another golden era.

"There is a cycle at Villa Park. We get a new manager and the promise of better times ahead. The first season is usually relatively good, but then by the third season everybody wants the manager out - and the only common denominator in all of this is the chairman.

"I'm no real fan of O'Leary's and he did himself no favours with the way he talked down about the fans and the club last season, but before we address anything on the manager, we have to address the fact the club has gone stale.

"And I'm afraid this latest episode is just what we didn't need just before the start of the new season.

"Fans are now voting with their feet. Season tickets plummeted last season and attendances dropped, and they have been decimated again this summer."

A 64m takeover bid from a consortium fronted by Irish property developers, the Comer Brothers, appears to have sunk.

Fear said: "Doug Ellis is hiding behind a takeover bid that doesn't exist. We hear talk of consortiums and there is no better time for people to come forward, but at the moment there is nothing.

"It's a real crisis for us, and while O'Leary must take some blame, the first step must be for Ellis to stop treating the club as his baby and leave."

SEE ALSO
Villa team 'demand Ellis meeting'
17 Jul 06 |  Aston Villa
Villa dismiss player unrest claim
15 Jul 06 |  Aston Villa
Villa fans urging Ellis to resign
15 May 06 |  Aston Villa
Villa chairman upbeat on takeover
26 Jan 06 |  Business


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