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New beginnings for stagnant Villa

The winds of change are blowing in the direction of Birmingham. Buoyed by their local rival's descent into the Championship, Aston Villa are undergoing a rebirth.

Having sacked David O'Leary in pre-season, long-standing chairman Doug Ellis may be the next face to go after a disappointing sixteenth-placed finish and mounting pressure for his departure.

The 82 year old has made it clear that he is willing to sell the club to potential investors, headed by American billionaire Randy Lerner, and negotiations are ongoing to reach a settlement 'in weeks, rather than months'.

Although he may also be swayed by interest from lifelong Villa fan and Birmingham millionaire Michael Neville, whose consortium could tempt Ellis into a sale with promises of a £20 million transfer kitty.

Whatever decision Ellis makes, he can at least be glad to have left the club in capable hands.

New manager Martin O'Neill has an excellent track record with underachieving clubs. Enjoying success at Leicester and also at Celtic, the likeable Irishman took 15 months out of football to care for his sick wife after leaving Glasgow, and has a strong desire to get started on his latest challenge at Villa Park.

And a challenge it certainly is. Chairman issues aside, O'Neill has inherited a team with very low self-confidence having qualified for Europe in 2003/04 and narrowly avoided relegation last season.

Pre-season has been no fun either. As the furore surrounding who was going to take over the managerial reigns at Villa Park erupted, senior players were alleged to have criticised Ellis' ambition in a public statement.

Since then, the players have denied all knowledge of where the statement came from and an internal inquiry has been launched.

Disruptive influences have plagued Villa's build-up to the new season, and O'Neill is yet to play his cards in the transfer market, with the only new faces to appear on the playing staff being highly-rated teenage brothers Yago and Damian Bellon from Swiss side St Gallen.

A player recently linked with a move to Villa Park, and a reunion with his former boss, is Celtic's Stilian Petrov, while one of O'Neill's first tasks is to decide on the future of striker Kevin Phillips.

O'Neill must bring some stability back to the West Midlands club and banish the demons of O'Leary's tenure from the minds of his players before he can start to make his own mark on the club.

It is tantamount to the reputation of the man that O'Neill is already having an effect on some of players previously heading for the exit.

Captain Olof Mellberg has pledged his future to the club and another important cog in the Villa wheel, Gareth Barry, has indicated his desire to play under the Irishman.

Known for his communication skills, O'Neill will also have to persuade the likes of Lee Hendrie, Juan Pablo Angel and Milan Baros to remain to maintain quality in the squad before the transfer window closes at the end of the month. It is important to have a solid core to build on before introducing new faces to a club.

The team already has a good crop of young players still keen to prove their worth in the Premiership.

England U-21 defender Liam Ridgewell, strikers Luke Moore and Gabriel Agbonlahor and Northern Ireland international midfielder Steven Davis all made an impression last season and will be pushing O'Neill for a starting place against Arsenal on the opening day.

Danish defender Martin Laursen will also be back in contention for a place in the team after spending much of last season on the sidelines with injuries. Baros and Wilfired Bouma will want to improve on a similarly disappointing campaign.

With the O'Leary era a distant memory, Villa can look forward to brighter future with O'Neill at the helm.

The spotlight will certainly be on his dugout come matchday and the fans will be straining to see some of his trademark gesticulations from the touchline.

Many believe he can bring a passion to the club that was lacking in previous managers and there may be those fans breathing a sigh of relief that Sven didn't land the vacancy.

O'Neill will, of course, be judged on results and not his antics on the sidelines.

Having been treated to a history of regular European football in the 1990s, Villa fans are notoriously hard to please and another season struggling against relegation would not be received well.

However, with a new manager, new owners and a few new players, a breath of fresh air has been blown into Villa Park. If O'Neill can capitalise on the new found sense of belief at the club, then European qualification is definitely an achievable goal.

They almost certainly have the right manager to lead them towards it.

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