When it comes to questioning referees' decisions, Martin O'Neill's many years having to pick his words carefully as an expert television summariser did not go to waste.

 O'Neill's reading of the key incident at Fratton Park on Saturday was that David James should have been sent off for the foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor that resulted in Aston Villa’s penalty.

 It was rare among the nine spot-kicks Villa have won this season in that it went totally uncontested. For once, it was a penalty, unargued with by anyone in the ground. But, reading between the lines, O'Neill clearly wanted more.

 "From a distance, it looked as if Gabby's in control of the ball," O'Neill said. "If he gets the other side of him [James], he can slide it in before the two covering players can get back but the referee interprets it differently, his is the decision that matters and James stayed on the park to play a not-insignificant role in the game."

 This masterful statement stopped short of criticising referee Uriah Rennie but also enabled O'Neill to make his point until, with a rueful smile, he added: "We could have done with him off. He's in outstanding form at the moment."

 When O'Neill faced the press an hour after the game, any anger he might have felt had evaporated. "I did say I'd come and see [Rennie]," he said. "But you have to wait half-an-hour and he's probably gone home now."

 A second look at Mr Rennie's decisions would have told O'Neill that the referee was vindicated in almost all of his rulings. — including the one red card he did give, to midfielder Pedro Mendes for two wild challenges on Milan Baros and Gavin McCann.

 And, having conceded a perfectly legitimate penalty thanks to Gareth Barry's handball, O'Neill was pleased to have got a point in the end.

 "I can't really complain because we were poor on Wednesday night," he said. "And coming from behind with 10 minutes to go, you have to feel a certain sense of relief."

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