Gareth Barry is nearing the hour when he will sign a new contract with Aston Villa, just as he is rivalling Martin O'Neill for the position of most popular person at the club.

It was fitting that, in his first home match as the regular Villa captain, Barry should score the winning goal against Reading and cap it with a performance that augurs well for his chances of making the England squad next month.

Villa manager O'Neill has expended much energy in telling the world how important it is that Barry remains at Villa Park and I understand that the midfield player is mulling over the offer of a new deal.

O'Neill has given few indications as to which players form part of the long-term future with the club but Barry, who has just started his tenth season with the club, has the chance to sign on for life.

At 25, Barry could conceivably have ten years left of his career and could surpass the 659-appearance record for Villa amassed by Charlie Aitken from 1959-76. Barry has already played 315 times for Villa.

But Portsmouth have already had an offer of £4.5 million turned down for Barry and Harry Redknapp, their manager, is likely to increase the bid to £5 million before the transfer window closes next Thursday.

When O'Neill arrived at the club on August 4, he thought his main concern was signing new players. It soon became apparent that his main concern was ensuring that Barry signs a new deal.

"You cannot beat leading the team out [as captain]," Barry said. "I've been here for a long time and to lead the team out at Villa Park every other week is special."

A hint that Barry is planning to remain at Villa Park? Or public-relations speak on a night of triumph for Villa?

Everything about him suggests that he would fancy another ten years with the club.

Had David O'Leary remained as manager, Barry might already be a Portsmouth player.

Even before his goal, on the hour mark, the Villa supporters at the Holte End were chanting "Barry for England, Barry for England." The chorus has been heard irregularly over the years but has never carried more weight.

"We want to keep Gareth here and we are in the throes of doing something about it," O'Neill said. "It is really important to us."

Barry had been contemplating a move away from Villa for months. He was concerned that his England credentials were being diminished, although this had as much to do with Sven-Goran Eriksson as it did to do with Villa's wretched form last season.

But now that Steve McClaren has replaced Eriksson as England head coach, and O'Neill has restored optimism to Villa Park, Barry's spirits have soared like an eagle.

He made his England debut against Ukraine at Wembley in May 2000 and made the Euro 2000 squad, under Kevin Keegan. Barry's eighth and most recent appearance came as an 84th minute substitute against Serbia & Montenegro in Leicester in June 2003.

Olof Mellberg, the Villa central defender from whom Barry assumed the captaincy, believes that the role of skipper can be inspirational to a player.

"You get a lift from the captaincy and hopefully that can happen with Gareth as well now," Mellberg said. "Being captain can inspire you. That's what I felt and you can see it in Gareth as well. He is a quiet lad. He doesn't really talk that much and maybe being captain can bring that out of him.

"I know Villa are trying all they can to keep Gareth and having the captaincy maybe can help and he seems happy enough. It would be nice for him if he gets the call from England. He has played well for quite some time and definitely he should have a chance with England."