David O'Leary is now entering the crucial phase of his management of Aston Villa now that Doug Ellis has loosened the purse strings.

One particular credible excuse will no longer be available to O?Leary from next season onwards. It?s not only the local media who have become bored by the manager?s mantra of being ?down to the bare bones? and relying on ?just an honest bunch of lads?.

The supporters have heard it chanted too many times in the past two years and, although they were misguided in believing, that the manager could improve on last season?s splendid sixth place with a small squad, expectations will be that much higher next time round.

The sullen, defeatist atmosphere on matchdays at Villa Park will change, for good or ill.

O?Leary did very well to take Leeds United to the semi-finals of the Champions? League and to finish in the top five of the Premiership for three seasons in a row.

He?d agree but that was with the backing of an excellent youth set-up that fostered some fine players and with enough money at his disposal to land the likes of Rio Ferdinand.

Now he has to prove that he can do it again. His comment about the lack of decent players coming through from Villa?s reserves and youth teams was a shade dogmatic, considering that Villa won the reserves? championship, northern section, last year ? ahead of Manchester United ? and the FA Youth Cup three years ago.

The backroom staff of Gordon Cowans, Tony McAndrew and Kevin McDonald won?t feel totally appreciated by O?Leary?s dismissive opinion of the young players under their guidance at Villa.

O?Leary has a tendency to be sceptical of those players he has inherited and to boost the ones he has signed.

Now nobody could cavil at the quality and effectiveness of Nobby Solano, Gavin McCann and Thomas Sorensen ? all O?Leary signings ? but he can be judgmental early on about a player he?s unsure of ? and then appears unwilling to be persuaded otherwise.

Peter Crouch has scored as many goals as the whole of Villa?s strike force put together this season since he was unceremoniously shipped out to Southampton.

It?s an asset to have a manager who is clearthinking about players and can assess their qualities or defects early.

That?s one of the many reasons why they?re paid so well but now O?Leary has to deliver in the transfer market. That?s why he?ll be under greater pressure next season, rather than getting the benefit of the doubt.

His rather unsubtle hints to the chairman that he should raise his sights do look like paying off, but Doug Ellis will be watching developments very closely.

He hasn?t forgotten the John Gregory regime and the disastrous waste of money on the likes of Bosko Balaban and Alpay.

He?ll have been happy to see the wages bill trimmed substantially by the release of 15 players from the first-team squad last season and observed how well his new manager fared with a small transfer budget but Ellis is too shrewd an old fox not to know when public opinion is being influenced via the media. He?s done it himself often enough.

O?Leary gave us enough steers about wanting a new, extended contract for himself and his select backroom staff and eventually got what he wanted. Now the same applies to releasing funds for new players, to the surprise and delight of O?Leary.

On the face of it, the chairman has compromised twice inside a few months, but he knows about playing a long strategy.

Perhaps he?s now given O?Leary enough rope to hang himself if next season proves another disappointment. Surely the ?Ellis Out? brigade can?t turn on the old boy again after he?s ostensibly done their bidding?

So the main responsibility rests on the manager, as it should. I understand the war chest is nearer #15 million, rather than figure of #20 m.

That figure was reached after O?Leary announced the breakthrough last Friday.

The feeling was that the four players required would cost around #5m each but at no stage will the club make a definitive statement on the sums available.

Nor should they. It would be crass to alert the selling clubs that a large amount was to be spent by Villa, thereby forcing up the value of the nominated player. Deadly?s not that daft.

The players earmarked are interesting and they would undoubtedly strengthen the team. O?Leary had a lot to do with Alan Smith?s precocious success at Leeds and they keep in touch.

Smith may have difficulty-staying out of referees? notebooks, but he?s an intelligent, brave forward, not a natural goalscorer, but an enabler. O?Leary has noticed that Smith is in and out of the Manchester United starting XI and he would be an undoubted coup for Villa. He?d give it all for O?Leary.

Smith would bring some necessary grit and bite to a Villa team that is, at times, far too passive and so would Robert Huth, Chelsea?s tough centre-back.

The German is fancied by many clubs after forcing his way into his national side and getting Champions? League experience this season.

Scott Parker, another Chelsea fringe player, would surely jump at the chance of first- team football with another Premiership club. Villa need someone of his craft, mobility and passing skills in midfield, despite being overloaded in that area. Methinks Eric Djemba-Djemba isn?t the answer.

So, after a season of mediocrity, Aston Villa FC will become interesting again for we neutrals. David O?Leary will have been there for two years this summer, time enough to have laid the foundations for an era that doesn?t lead again to chronic under-achievement.

Last week, he talked about qualification for the UEFA Cup, then ? given more investment ? the Champions? League a couple more years down the track.

So he?s the one who has upped the stakes now. A wily octogenarian will be keeping two beady eyes on manoeuvres at Villa Park over the next year.

Shamed Pennant must earn right to be praised

Now that Jermaine Pennant is out of jail ? having served just one third of his initial sentence ? I hope we can be spared further nauseating gestures of support for him from so many misguided Birmingham City fans.

At St Andrew?s on Saturday, the amount of standing ovations for Pennant at various stages of the afternoon were totally out of proportion.

It?s absolutely right that home fans should show their appreciation, respect and affection for any of their players, but it?s a pity more of all that didn?t come the way of Maik Taylor, Kenny Cunningham and Darren Carter in particular on Saturday.

But Pennant got all the attention. I accept he?s contrite, that he means to make amends, that he?s grateful to both club and supporters for giving him yet another chance in a young life of wasted opportunities.

Everyone who?s met him says he?s a pleasant lad, who?s had a hard life and is easily led, rather than a shady character.

Steve Bruce is one of the best around to have as a character witness and you?d have to possess a heart of stone not to be influenced by the manager?s advocacy.

But. Jermaine Pennant could have killed someone that night in Aylesbury, driving way over the limit while still banned for a similar offence. He was lucky and he knows it. That?s hardly a reason for those standing ovations last Saturday.

By all means, wipe the slate clean and let?s see how he settles down in Birmingham, once the expected permanent transfer goes through.

Then we?ll see if he?s more than a talented gadfly who flits in and out of games. At the age of 22, he?s got everything on his side now, provided he listens to the wise counsel that?s readily available at Birmingham City.

From now on, the ovations should be for excellence on the field, not just for wearing a Blues? shirt after coming out of prison.

The lionisation of Premiership footballers by one-eyed fans is getting out of hand. The celebrity culture demands association with anyone who?s been on the telly or in the newspapers.

And don?t blame the media for all this. It was a legitimate story in the public interest.

The player involved would seem to concur. He sold his account of his last month to a Sunday tabloid, with the fee going to the Jermaine Pennant Foundation, set up to help others who get into similar scrapes. Perhaps some idolatrous Blues? fans might care to contribute? After all many of them appear to love the guy.

Players showing the write stuff

A major literacy drive has nominated one player from each Premiership club to talk about their favourite book.

The choices give the lie to the foul slur that footballers can only read the racing page, the matchday programme and any porn magazine lying around.

Libraries around the country will promote the choices of the players, who include West Bromwich Albion?s Riccardo Scimeca, Aston Villa?s Mark Delaney and Stephen Clemence of Birmingham City.

They are, incidentally, three of the most pleasant and accommodating footballers in this area. I wonder if there?s a connection between reading books and human decency?

Anyway, I thought I?d offer a few more books, with no optimism that the nominated football person would turn up for a reading at the local library . . .

ATONEMENT: Jermaine Pennant

CAKES AND ALE: Delia Smith


THE GINGER MAN: Gordon Strachan

THE GOOD COMPANIONS: Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer




GOLDFINGER: Roman Abramovich

THUNDERBALL: Stuart Pearce

THE GO-BETWEEN: Pini Zahavi, agent to the stars

FEAR OF FLYING: Dennis Bergkamp

I, CLAUDIUS: Claude Makelele

STUPID WHITE MEN: Too many at the Football Association to mention!

ABOUT A BOY: Wayne Rooney


And, finally, with a spot of artistic licence . . .

ALEX IN WONDERLAND: Sir Alex Ferguson, still chasing that second Champions? League trophy after all these years.