Over-protective referees and diving cheats are gradually pick-pocketing football of its passion and masculinity, according to Aston Villa's Nigel Reo-Coker.

The former West Ham United player has added some long-overdue bite to Villa Park's midfield battleground since his summer arrival but the midfielder insists the theatrics and gamesmanship which come so easily to players these days are robbing the sport of its physical essence, and its innocence.

Reo-Coker, whose disciplinary record suggests he is no angel when it comes to putting his foot in, said: "Players are getting booked for nothing these days. It's not even a man's game at times. You can't really get physical any more.

"I thought football was a physical game but now if you slightly touch a player, they go down and do 20 rolls and a back-flip to get you cautioned.

"The manager [Martin O'Neill] is helping me develop as a player. He's making me think a lot more about my game. He wants me to develop my discipline, so I'm working on that.

"I'm used to getting bookings. It happens in games and I won't be changing my overall approach to the game. But I try to take on board what the manager is saying.

"I'll continue to be very passionate and committed but I think there are a lot more theatrical falls now and that's killing the game."

O'Neill is no apologist for Reo-Coker's no-nonsense style of play but he admits there is a balance to be struck. He said: "As well as people being able to play, we need some controlled aggression in the team. I wouldn't want any players involved in serious foul play or anything like that. But there's a difference between controlled aggression and losing your head."

In contrast to the way favourable way that Villa supporters have warmed to Reo-Coker, the reaction to the style of play adopted by the skilful Stiliyan Petrov has been more tepid.

O'Neill revealed this week that the Bulgarian is suffering from another crisis in confidence; the same could be said of the club's fans in the player.

"I've seen little spells before where he was also lacking in confidence at Celtic," said O'Neill. "But Stiliyan is still a very good player.

"He wants to do well but the early chance he had against Newcastle showed how he is feeling at present. The Stiliyan Petrov I know, the fully-confident one, when someone laid the ball back to him in the outside right position, would not have whipped in his shot first time and miscued it.

"I know what he is capable of. He's scored goals for Celtic, including goals at European level.

"Yes, I'm asking him to play a different role at the moment but it's something that he is going to have to live with."

O'Neill will try to repair Petrov's confidence during the club's current training period in Spain.

Last year's form, after a similar overseas break, yielded an unbeaten nine-game run to end the season. A repeat this term would keep the club well in the frame for a place in Europe.

Meanwhile, West Bromwich Albion are understood to be interested in taking Villa striker Luke Moore on loan for the rest of the season.

Baggies manager Tony Mowbray has indicated an interest in Moore before and has suggested that Albion will be looking to strengthen during the emergency loan market.

Moore has made it clear he wants to leave Villa after declining a new contract offer before Christmas. He has 16 months left of his current deal after Villa decided to take up a one-year option on his services.