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O'Neill endures mixed reaction on Villa return
Aston Villa 0 Sunderland 0
MARTIN O'NEILL'S return to Villa Park was always going to be the talking point on Saturday, but in truth, even that proved to be a damp squib.
While there were clear boos from Aston Villa supporters still sore at their former manager walking out on the eve of the 2010-11 season, there was also a smattering of applause. Not a bad reaction for a man who had been cast in the role of pantomime villain before kick-off.
That is not to say that the red carpet on Trinity Road had been rolled out for their former manager, far from it, but there have been plenty more vitriolic responses for returning managers at other grounds around the country.
O'Neill spoke of concern over his return potentially taking away from the game of football, but, despite a handful of chances either side, there was no danger of that.
Villa played like a team in trouble - nervy, rushing into shots, snatching at chances, permeable at the back - while Sunderland played like a team which had, despite their own protestations to the contrary, lost focus and were instead concerned about their plans for the summer.
In the run-up to Saturday's game, O'Neill had shied away from speaking too much about his time at Villa Park, no more his reasons for leaving almost two years ago. But, after the goalless draw, Sunderland's manager chose to elaborate on the question that most Villa fans wanted an answer to.
Speaking about his lukewarm reception, O'Neill said: "It was a natural reaction. Considering I've been gone two years and they've never known my reasons for leaving, I think it's very natural.
"I was expecting it, and I got it. If there's the idea that I left them in the lurch, then I apologise, maybe, for leaving five days beforehand, but I came to this club a fortnight before the season started and the team had almost been relegated the previous year.
"While I left and the timing was never great, five or six days before the start of the season, the team was infinitely better than the one I inherited.
"Internationals galore, players who have gone on to other clubs, who have been excellent - Milner, Young, Downing - and I think people might have forgotten that under the stewardship of Kevin McDonald they picked up six points in the first three games after I'd gone, so it wasn't exactly a poor start.
"I think the clapping might have been to do with me putting a couple of people in the crowd, trying to get a reaction from it.
"I hope this doesn't sound patronising, but I had a great time here, it went a bit sour at the end. They'll be back sometime."
O'Neill was not provided with much to celebrate on his return to a club he spent four years at, but was aggrieved to see what appeared to be a perfectly good goal by Nicklas Bendtner chalked off for offside, while Craig Gardner - returning to his former club but denied the opportunity to face his brother Gary, who was on the Villa bench - received his marching orders for a second bookable offence in injury time for a foul on Marc Albrighton.
Neither decision pleased Sunderland's manager, who said: "I think the linesman has incorrectly called the offside. He was level, he was on, certainly last week anyway, and unless they have changed the rules this morning, he was still onside.
"They're having a tough time at the moment, linesmen and referees, but you've got to try and get those right, particularly when the linesman told one of our players to watch it on TV afterwards. It's very magnanimous of him.
"I hope he watches it himself, before he settles down to a fish supper."
In a game light on chances but open all the same, Villa edged the first half in terms of shots on goal - almost taking the lead with just 20 seconds on the clock when Gabriel Agbonlahor pounced on a weak backpass by left-back Phil Bardsley.
Simon Mignolet did well to block the shot, while rising acrobatically to paw away Andreas Weimann's follow-up.
Former Newcastle winger Charles N'Zogbia had a shot saved by Mignolet on 13 minutes, the Belgian tipping N'Zogbia's goalbound effort around the post.
At the other end, Nicklas Bendtner headed over from James McClean's cross on 39 minutes in Sunderland's only real chance of the half.
It improved in the second half - Weimann spurned a decent opportunity for the opener two minutes after the restart when he collected Agbonlahor's pass and fired into the side-netting, while McClean stabbed over the bar from Larsson's centre at the other end.
But Sunderland should have been in the lead on 67 minutes when Bendtner's goalbound effort, after strong work from Stephane Sessegnon, was cleared off the line by former Sunderland man Alan Hutton.
After Bendtner's effort, from Larsson's centre, was chalked off for offside, Barry Bannan fired over with two minutes left of normal time, while McClean's header from Larsson's cross at the other end was well held by Shay Given.
In stoppage time Gardner received his second yellow card of the afternoon, was booed off the Villa Park pitch, but as he made his way towards the tunnel he revealed a t-shirt pledging support for Stiliyan Petrov, who is undergoing treatment for leukaemia. The gesture brought applause from the Villa faithful for a player who spent his formative years at Villa Park.
In a game which was low on positives, O'Neill was at least consoled with fine performances by McClean and Jack Colback as the season peters out.
"James was terrific for us, Colback was excellent in the middle for us and James continues his great run," said O'Neill.
"What is happening is that players are doubling up on him, he has to sort a few things out for himself, we help him along, but I thought he was excellent today, he's put five fantastic balls in today that needed touching into the net."