Chris Young’s big-match vedict: What reception awaits Martin O’Neill?

DEFENCE PRAISE ... Sunderland Manager Martin O'Neill. Picture by FRANK REID

DEFENCE PRAISE ... Sunderland Manager Martin O'Neill. Picture by FRANK REID

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THE PRESCIOUS few who dared to applaud Darren Bent on his Stadium of Light return last October were overwhelmingly drowned out by the fuming mob who barracked the Aston Villa striker.

The vitriol towards Bent was near-universal anyway, understandably so given the manner of his departure from the Stadium of Light.

But as Martin O’Neill makes the reverse journey to his former stomping ground tomorrow, what reception awaits the Black Cats boss and ex-Villa Park favourite?

Will O’Neill be revered as the one that got away, the manager who consistently took Villa into Europe after three successive sixth-placed finishes?

Or will the manner of his exit still rankle with the Villa faithful after the irrevocable differences with Randy Lerner saw the former Nottingham Forest winger resign just five days before the start of the 2010-11 campaign?

Given the troubles which have encircled both of O’Neill’s successors – Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish – there has to be a suspicion that the Sunderland boss will be treated fondly rather than a torrent of abuse descending on the away dug-out.

Polite applause for O’Neill is the last thing McLeish wants to hear. He can be ill-afford to be painted as the bad guy who fails to live up to the standards of his predecessor, particularly with Villa’s league position still so precarious.

McLeish will not be revered in the same manner as O’Neill has been at Sunderland even if he does lead Villa to the tranquillity of Premier League safety this season.

But O’Neill’s return will doubtless reinforce the scrutiny on McLeish, particularly if Villa fail to record the three points tomorrow which will surely be sufficient to avoid dropping into the bottom three on May 13.

Circumstances are certainly in McLeish’s favour, with back-to-back home games against Sunderland and Bolton providing the perfect opportunity to rid Villa of their tag as outside bets for the Championship.

With Charles N’Zogbia and Carlos Cuellar both in contention to start tomorrow after returning to fitness, the former Birmingham boss also has the luxury of putting less of a burden on the club’s academy products.

But he is facing an ominous counterpart in O’Neill, who is determined to earn some retribution for the manner of his Villa Park exit.

The parting of ways still rankles with O’Neill and his coaching staff – perhaps tellingly none of which attended last week’s reserve clash with Villa at the Academy of Light.

Sunderland may have had an air of lethargy against Wolves last weekend, yet they are unlikely to be as sloppy again tomorrow. O’Neill has worked the players hard this week and they should be suitably fired up to return to winning ways.

Despite O’Neill pledging to blood some of his fringe players, it’s unlikely that he will veer too drastically in his starting XI for a game he will be so desperate to win either.

Tomorrow is likely to come too soon for Lee Cattermole despite the skipper taking part in light training this week.

But John O’Shea is a possible inclusion in the side after a month on the sidelines, with Matt Kilgallon probably the most vulnerable to the return of the Republic of Ireland international.

Regardless of the attention on himself though, O’Neill ultimately needs to find a winning formula after just three points from Sunderland’s last four games.

With the cluster of sides occupying the middle ground in the table so tightly packed, every point is a precious one and the Black Cats are likely to need a minimum of five to finish in the top 10.

Villa Park will be racked by nerves tomorrow, particularly as the club weren’t expected to be in the dogfight and have so far managed to escape plummeting into the thick of the relegation turmoil.

Sunderland must take advantage by finding their shooting boots after five goalless hours and provide a suitable token of repayment towards a manager who has transformed their standing.

Verdict: Draw