Former Villa full-back Mark Delaney has tipped the club to eventually break the monopoly of the big four as long as Martin O’Neill continues his transformation of the club.

The 32-year-old is now part of the Irishman’s backroom team as a youth coach after injury put an end to his eight-year Villa Park career two summers ago.

His retirement in August 2007 came after 12 months of O’Neill’s management during which the club had climbed from 16th with 42 points under David O’Leary to finish 11th with 50 points.

Villa are in the midst of a dismal run of results which has seen them winless in 11 matches and take just three points from eight league games.

That has seen Arsenal open up an eight point gap, which is effectively nine due to a plus-20 goal difference, with just five games remaining.

But Delaney believes supporters should look at the bigger picture, with the team enjoying their best season in terms of results since 1997.

“It’s been brilliant. I think Villa have taken another step forward this season,” he said.

“They may not finish in fourth – it’s going to be difficult now – but if they finish in fifth or sixth it will still have been a great season and will also guarantee a spot in Europe again.”

Villa have not qualified directly for what is now the Uefa Cup and will become the Europa League next season since John Gregory replaced Brian Little in February 1998 and led a struggling team to seventh place.

Delaney arrived a year later and became part of a Villa side continually pushing for Europe under Gregory before his resignation in January 2002.

“John Gregory always used to lead us up into the top reaches of the table but unfortunately in recent times it’s gone downhill – until Martin came in,” said Delaney.

“The fans should recognise a progression and they should see that the club is moving in the right direction on the pitch with Martin in charge.

“I was here for eight years and I feel we are genuinely a real top club, on and off the field. Outside the elite, I think we are as good as anyone and hopefully Martin can take us into that top four soon.”

Meanwhile, Gareth Barry believes team-mates Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young deserve their PFA Young Player of the Year nominations.

The duo are up against Manchester United defenders Jonny Evans and Rafael da Silva, Aaron Lennon of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City’s Stephen Ireland.

Barry believes the Villa pair’s confidence has helped them deliver on the field.

“Ashley and Gabby are in there because they deserve to be nominated,” he said. “Their performances last year were outstanding and the reason they are in there this year is because they’ve improved again.

“Both of them have brought their confidence from the campaign before and they’ve both scored goals and both created goals.

“That’s why their fellow players have nominated them. Fingers crossed one of them can take the award. They are both confident people and they take it into their performances.

“It’s a good sign of any player. A top player does keep getting better. They don’t stand still and be happy where they are. They have both worked hard again to improve.”

Villa’s reserves will have to wait a little longer to lift the Premiership Reserve League South title after Tottenham Hotspur won 1-0 last night at Stoke City, meaning Villa still need to win their last match to ensure they finish on top.