Aston Villa haunted by Martin O'Neill throughout defeat by Bolton

It is seven months since Martin O'Neill's abrupt exit from Aston Villa, but he has been a constant reference point over the past seven days.

Aston Villa haunted by Martin O'Neill throughout defeat by Bolton After the announcement of £37.5m losses and criticism of the former manager's spending came a game in which a man whom O'Neill had deemed surplus to requirements, Gary Cahill, scored twice and the zonal marking system the Northern Irishman had implemented was blamed for three goals. Whether the former manager is a convenient scapegoat or the architect of their undoing, the theme was that Villa were condemned to defeat by their past, rather than Ivan Klasnic's crisp and clinical strike.

Gérard Houllier did not mention O'Neill by name but criticisms of his predecessor's policy and personnel choices were voiced. That all three Bolton goals came from dead-ball situations, albeit indirectly in the case of Klasnic's winner, reinforced Houllier's view that Villa's defenders need to patrol an opponent apiece.

"We have conceded too many goals at set pieces," he said. "We have to address that. I came to this club on 18 September. They had their habits, they have them for four years and I am not going to change them in the middle of the season but next year it is something I'll address."

Systemic failure was made worse by inexperience in a back four in which the inappropriately named Luke Young was the senior man by a decade. "We were a bit naive," Houllier said. He would have benefited from Cahill's presence in both penalty areas and he remarked pointedly that he had not been responsible for the defender's departure three years ago. Circumstances added ballast to the theory that O'Neill erred in authorising Cahill's sale: three of Villa's four specialist central defenders were injured and the other, Ciaran Clark, collected a caution that resulted in a two-match ban. Meanwhile, Cahill struck twice for Bolton.

Unlike many players, he was willing to celebrate such success against his former employers. "I know now that me leaving was the best thing," said the 25-year-old. "Martin O'Neill let me go but you want to prove people wrong. When someone kicks you, you try to come back stronger and kick on." Now a £20m-rated England player, he has done that.

"Gary has used it as motivation," said his current manager, Owen Coyle. "He wants to show people he was disappointed that he never had that career at Aston Villa." Having been given infrequent opportunities before joining Bolton, Cahill conceded he has since been slow to remind Villa of his considerable talents.

"The last few times I've played against them I've had absolute stinkers," he said. "The away game last season was probably my worst performance as a professional. To do it at Villa Park was a big blow." This, aided by a spirited comeback, was a first win against his former team-mates.

But for Jussi Jaaskelainen's penalty save from Ashley Young, Villa would have taken a two-goal lead into the final 20 minutes. It was far from their only miss; the signing of Darren Bent was interpreted as an £18m insurance policy against relegation but his goal probably should have been part of a hat-trick and Villa are still in danger.

"With strikers, you have got to be patient and indulgent," said Houllier. "[Bill] Shankly used to say that at least he was in a position to score." Yet the unfortunate conclusion for Villa was that their old reserve centre-back finished with greater assurance than their record buy.

Powered by article was written by Richard Jolly at Reebok Stadium, for The Guardian on Monday 7th March 2011 07.01 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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