Ged Scott on why Steve McGregor is an unsung hero at Villa Park...
Not many teams have a better track record than Aston Villa since Christmas and Villa manager David O'Leary has been quick to pay tribute to the little-known member of his backroom team who has fuelled his side's upward momentum.
Like most of the teams in the Premiership, Villa had to face the gruelling schedule of four top flight games in eight days over the festive period, followed by an FA Cup third round tie at Hull.
But Villa not only got through it almost unscathed, they picked up eight league points in the process, moved to within touching distance of the top half of the table - and into the fourth round of the Cup and O'Leary believes that is down to the methods of his sports science manager, Steve McGregor.
"We have got the lads at nice fitness levels here and they've got to be, with the way we try to play and that's all down to Steve.
"Our training is demanding and that came through in the four matches and the Cup game.
"It is a real test to try to sustain that for four Premier-ship games in eight days and, while we try not to make too big a song and dance about the sports scientist side of things here, Steve is one of the best around.
"You only have to look at the fact that Thomas Hitzlsperger [former Villa player now with VfB Stuttgart in the German Bundesliga] came over to see us for a few days over Christmas.
"He still keeps in touch with Steve and listens to his advice because he feels he is in as good a shape as he has ever been in.
"Steve is not unique. After all, Arsene Wenger has probably been doing this at Arsenal for longer than anyone else, and Jose Mourinho is the same way at Chelsea."
As far as McGregor's principles are concerned, O'Leary and his No 2 Roy Aitken were already familiar with his successful results, having worked with him at Leeds United.
He was their first recruit when they first arrived at Villa Park two-and-a-half years ago. And, having taken Eirik Bakke on loan from Leeds this season, as well as Elland Road old boy James Milner, O'Leary has added two converts.
"It's not just the way he works them on a daily basis," said O'Leary, "it's the way the players kept themselves in good shape for the four games. And that's about what food they should eat, what they should do after the games to replenish, from eating prop-erly, eating certain food. Even in the dressing room after the game, Steve makes them eat.
"You might not, straight after a football match, be wanting to eat a good whole-meal chicken sandwich or having a certain drink but he makes them do that and, at the end of the day, you hope when they go away from here, some of it sinks in."
Meanwhile, O'Leary is hoping to have a clearer idea by the end of the week as to just how strong his staff will be for the final five months of the season.
Without season-long absentee Martin Laursen, O'Leary remains at risk of losing Ulises de la Cruz, Lee Hendrie and Mark Delaney if any offers for the unsettled trio come in during the January window.
But, at the moment, unless anyone leaves, he has been told there is no money available even to bring in loan signings. And that leaves him waiting on the fitness of Kevin Phillips, Patrik Berger and Wilfred Bouma, as well as hoping to tie up an extension to Bakke's loan.
"I'm desperate to have Eirik Bakke," said O'Leary. "Apart from Gavin McCann and Steven Davis as our central two, I've nobody else to put in there and he gives us an option.
"I wouldn't be able to tell you when Phillips will be ready. But he is nowhere near at the moment and, as for Berger, he went to America a month ago and the surgeon said he needed six weeks doing nothing. We've got two weeks more of that before he might have to go back for the surgeon to take a look at his knee."
Having allowed Stefan Postma to extend his loan at Wolves last week, it was thought Villa may retain goalkeeper Wayne Henderson, who was on the bench at The Hawthorns last week when Thomas Sorensen had flu.
But O'Leary has confirmed that Brighton are close to agreeing a deal to take Henderson, who has already spent three months on loan with the Seagulls this season.
"They're discussing a financial package and, if Brighton agree it, that will be fine as well."