It's a human emotion to start flailing around, looking for scapegoats, when you're in trouble and football managers are no different from the rest of us when the job starts to look particularly difficult.

But David O'Leary has chosen the wrong target as he attempts to tunnel his way out of his tightest spot yet at Aston Villa.

He has allowed himself to get sucked into an unedifying spat with this paper's sister title The Birmingham Mail, using the many media platforms available to him to berate the reporter who covers the Villa beat.

O'Leary maintains that reporter has an agenda against Villa, concentrating on the negatives rather than looking for any silver linings. He also alleges that the offending writer is in fact a West Bromwich Albion fan and therefore has no intention of giving the manager or Villa a fair shake.

O'Leary ploughed this particular furrow last Friday morning, when he used his briefing session with the regional media to bang on about the alleged bias by the Mail against Villa and he warmed to the theme again on Saturday night after Arsenal hammered them.

Now I happen to believe that if our profession falls below the required standards, then we are fair game for a sharp exchange from anyone in football. We shouldn't be too precious to dodge the flak and ought to have the guts to defend ourselves, or admit errors when we get it wrong.

On this occasion, though, O'Leary is unwise to take on a local paper. It smacks of irrelevance and the early stirrings of paranoia.

Even if the Mail's reporter is indeed an Albion supporter - and I have no knowledge either way - there is no evidence that this would impair his ability to cover Villa professionally. The various clubs would prefer the designated reporter to be merely a fan with a laptop, staying resolutely on-message, but the readers demand and deserve independent-minded coverage.

It's an area where clubs have long tried to control matters, in terms of access to players and leaking of stories to those who will view things favourably but, if you're playing badly and frustrating so many supporters, then you must expect the local press to take a stand. And if the Birmingham Mail's reporter says in print that Villa's manager and players need to pull their fingers out, how many will take issue with that?

I know enough Villa fans to appreciate they can make their own minds up about their beloved club and no amount of coverage in the local evening paper will influence their views on the current state of play at Villa Park. You only have to watch what's going on out on the pitch to reach a view that is closer to the Birmingham Mail's, rather than O'Leary's.

I accept that my trade at times takes a rather pompous view of itself. Rather too many of us seem to believe that we do influence sporting issues. I've never bought that one. To the best of my knowledge, the press has never been directly responsible for a goal scored or conceded. That is down to players, coaches and managers - not the scribblers in the press box.

Yet too many football people in responsible positions get sidetracked by the press. Look at the shameful way that Glenn Hoddle was bounced out of the England job in 1999, when his alleged remarks about the disabled were distorted and twirled. Even the Prime Minister entered into the debate, which shockingly cooked Hoddle's goose.

The Football Association were disgracefully craven in the face of that witch-hunt. The prospect of damaging headlines for a few days made them surrender and, instead of standing firm and influencing public opinion, they allowed themselves to be boxed into a corner by press hysteria. Too many relevant newspaper correspondents had little time for Hoddle and wanted him out. There was a lamentable lack of leadership from the FA.

Nothing has changed. The beauty contest to determine SvenGoran Eriksson's successor is being conducted with one eye on how it will play in the papers. Instead of giving the job straight away to the only obvious candidate - Guus Hiddink - we are being treated to a succession of nudges and winks. Names are being floated in the press, just to see how they'll fare at the bar of public opinion.

Brian Barwick should have the courage of his own convictions, settle on his preferred candidate and take no notice of what is said in the papers. It's called leadership. That's how he should earn his generous salary. The rest is spin-doctoring and flim-flam in the mould of Alastair Campbell.

All that matters is that the new head coach wins the key matches for England from this autumn onwards. Then it won't matter a stuff what the papers have to say. Nor the nationality of the successful candidate. I don't recall too much lamentation about Eriksson's nationality when England beat Germany 5-1 in 2001.

Which brings us back to O'Leary. He shouldn't get drawn into a draining bout of willy-waving at the Birmingham Mail. It's undignified and a waste of time.

The paper will always have the last word and it's never a good scheme to give them ideas of martyrdom - 'we won't be gagged by Villa's boss' and all that. Manna from heaven for a local paper. Write the headlines yourself.

Methinks O'Leary has enough on his plate without picking a fight with irrelevant opponents. He must rise above it and instead focus on the next two matches - against West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City.

If Villa blow those two games, then the fans won't even bother reading the papers to give their verdict on the O'Leary years. And it'll be damning.

Harry Houdini holds escape key

One goal scored in the final minute of a match three weeks ago could settle the fate of Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion next month.

Portsmouth were desperate to beat Tottenham Hotspur and, with the score 1-1, Pedro Mendes let fly in hope from outside the penalty area. It flew in and Portsmouth escaped with three lucky points. That started them on a run of three wins and now they're the form side among the relegation battlers.

Yet, in the week before the Tottenham match, Harry Redknapp was in despair. Portsmouth had lost haplessly at Villa Park and, for the first time in my memory, Redknapp couldn't face the press afterwards.

The game was almost up and he knew it. He looked terrible, careworn and prematurely aged. If they'd lost to Tottenham the following week, it was surely game, set and match for Pompey.

But his January signings have suddenly gelled and now he estimates he needs only eleven points from the final six games to survive. And Harry Houdini knows how to do it. Two years ago, Portsmouth beat the drop with 21 points from their last ten matches.

This time, four of their seven games are at home, where they remain formidable. The momentum is with them. Mendes and Andres D'Allessandro are flair players who can turn a game while Lomano Lua Lua is that priceless asset to an endangered side, a natural goalscorer. Blues and Albion would love a pacy predator like LuaLua in their ranks.

Albion just aren't getting the points, even if they have played well in most matches recently. One point from the last seven games may be unfair, but it's a bad time to run out of luck.

Zoltan Gera's impressive return to the first team against Liverpool in the second half on Saturday may be a boon, but it's asking a lot of him to turn it on regularly over the next month, having been out for so long.

Next Sunday's match at Villa Park now looks massively important, apart from the inevitable bragging rights that too often obscure the bigger picture.

As for Blues, you have to sympathise with them after Saturday's round of results. A heartening, tenacious draw against champions Chelsea and then they slip to second-bottom after results elsewhere.

Tonight's home game against Bolton Wanderers is the start of a mini-season of seven matches that will decide their fate. That awful run of games against the top sides is now over and they simply must start scoring some goals. Some opponents at this stage of the season won't be fully committed, no matter what their managers will say, while Blues and the Baggies will have to get lucky somewhere.

Blues have that precious game in hand but that will mean nothing if they lose tonight.

Extra piquancy involving tonight's game comes in the formidable shape of Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce - he and Steve Bruce are close friends. And we all know about Bruce and Bryan Robson's bond from their playing days at Old Trafford.

One other fact that could prove highly relevant. Albion have only two home games left, compared to Portsmouth's four.

Don't ask me, I haven't got a clue what will happen.

The permutations are endless and mind-boggling but with Portsmouth having rolled away the stone and got their season chugging forward at last, I fear for Albion and Blues.

We can be sure of one thing, though. Any manager or player associated with those three clubs who says he isn't looking at other results is having you on.

Transistor radios at the relevant grounds are about to become vital accessories on match days - yet again.

No one-hit wonder

At least Bryan Robson has one achievement that surpasses Steve Bruce and Harry Redknapp, his colleagues in distress.

He's the only current manager who can boast four top-ten chart hits, as he was quick to remind the media corps the other day.

Robson was being quizzed light-heartedly about the prospect of Embrace recording England's official World Cup song for the summer when Robson broke into a large grin and revealed his claim to fame.

And he's right. There were two FA Cup Final songs with Manchester United, plus This Time with England's 1982 World Cup squad and World in Motion with New Order in 1990 - you know, the one with John Barnes' famous rap effort.

Beat that, Big Ron. You can warble your versions of Frank Sinatra songs all day but your former captain is an old hand at this Top of the Pops lark. Not that Robbo ever looked like he was enjoying all those hours in the recording studio, as his perm lost its tightness under television lights. Remembering when to mime is slightly less exacting than coaxing a few goals out of his Albion side.