| 13.2°C Belfast

McLeish 'fights on' after Aston Villa fans snap

Aston Villa's last away fixture saw them face Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Next season it may be Peterborough United and Darren Ferguson.

Villa are this season's "too-good-to-go-down" team in the Premier League, a side no one tipped for relegation yet who are now drifting up the proverbial without a paddle. Dropping into the second tier for the first time since 1987 could be disastrous for a club who justifiably regard themselves as the biggest in the Midlands. Their better players would be likely to leave, revenue would almost certainly plummet and there is no guarantee of the instant return secured by Graham Taylor a quarter of a century ago.

The past 13 games have delivered a solitary victory for Villa as Wigan and Queen's Park Rangers have crept ever closer to them; they are missing seven players through injury and illness; and Alex McLeish, the manager few fans wanted because of his Birmingham connection and perceived cautious approach, trudged to the tunnel after Tuesday's 2-1 home defeat to Bolton with a torrent of abuse ringing in his ears.

Whereas his fellow Scot, Steve Kean, has endured such vilification all season at Blackburn, Villa's crowd had resisted openly venting antipathy towards McLeish, apparently willing to suppress their misgivings as long as the team kept a respectable distance between themselves and the bottom three. All that changed in the space of barely 50 seconds, the time it took Bolton to shrug off Stephen Warnock's 61st-minute goal and respond instantly by scoring twice.

Villa have never won fewer than six home matches in a season but the result left them with a wretched total of four from 18 matches and only Tottenham left to visit B6. "The ruthlessness, professionalism and clinical finishing just weren't there," admitted McLeish. Afterwards, the former Scotland manager was spotted deep in conversation with the club's American chairman-owner, Randy Lerner, and chief executive, Paul Faulkner. Few in his profession, if any, fall on their swords and he duly emerged, defiant if perhaps a little shaken, to assure the media he and the team would "keep fighting".

It may have seemed propitious for Villa's largely youthful side to be playing away on Saturday, far from the expectations of the Holte End. However, the trip to West Bromwich Albion, three and a half miles up the road, looks certain to be a bumpy ride. Mid-table Albion will be the West Midlands' only Premier League representatives if Villa join Wolves in the drop and Birmingham do not win the Championship play-offs. Their followers, moreover, will revel in Villa's plight, eager for a first double over them since 1973-74.

McLeish, facing a possible third relegation in his last four top-flight campaigns, hopes to have a seasoned campaigner, central defender Richard Dunne, back at The Hawthorns. Two more, James Collins and Stephen Ireland, should be fit to resume against Spurs and in the last match, at Norwich. Unhappily for Villa, given their paltry 36 goals in 35 games, he has no proven marksman to bring back, Darren Bent's ankle injury ensuring he will not play again this season.

Maybe no one should have been surprised by their failure to convert first-half chances against Bolton; the top scorers in the starting XI were a trio on two goals apiece. What was ominous, for a manager often branded "defensive", was the omnishambles, to borrow a phrase from politics, into which Villa's rearguard descended in the immediate aftermath of Warnock's goal.

Villa's problems, it is now clear, go deeper than being without experienced personnel. Even when McLeish had a near full-strength squad in the autumn they still failed to accrue sufficient points to offset the damage caused by the kind of run they are currently suffering.

Warnock manfully sought to deflect the criticism of McLeish on to the players. "It's our mistakes which have cost us, not the manager. He doesn't go to clear the ball and make a foul. That's our own individual errors and we need to learn from them," the midfielder said. "Now we need to go to West Brom with the belief that we can win. It's a must-win game, simple as that. Personally I feel we're not far off battering a team."

Villa's awful spring

Bottom six:


Aston Villa 35/7/15/13/36/50/36

QPR 35/9/7/19/39/57/34

Wigan 35/8/10/17/34/60/34

Bolton 34/10/3/21/39/67/33

Blackburn 35/8/7/20/47/73/31

Wolves (R) 35/5/8/22/34/75/23

Remaining games

Saturday West Bromwich Albion (a); 6 May Tottenham (h); 13 May Norwich (a)

Villa's recent run

1 Feb QPR (h); Drew 2-2

5 Feb Newcastle (a); Lost 2-1

12 Feb Man City (h); Lost 1-0

25 Feb Wigan (a); Drew 0-0

3 Mar Blackburn (a); Drew 1-1

10 Mar Fulham (h); Won 1-0

24 Mar Arsenal (a); Lost 3-0

31 Mar Chelsea (h); Lost 4-2

7 Apr Liverpool (a); Drew 1-1

9 Apr Stoke (h); Drew 1-1

15 Apr Man United (a); Lost 4-0

21 Apr Sunderland (h); Drew 0-0

24 Apr Bolton (h); Lost 2-1

Belfast Telegraph