WIGAN // For Roberto Martinez, loyalty could be rewarded with relegation. For Alex McLeish, disloyalty has led to dislike.
Wanted by Aston Villa to succeed Gerard Houllier last summer, the Spaniard spurned the advances of the bigger club to remain at his spiritual home of Wigan Athletic. McLeish took the job instead, leaving Birmingham City for Villa in an act many in the Second City considered treachery.
He has never won over the doubters. Now they are in outright revolt. An uneventful second half had a stormy soundtrack; that perennial fan favourite "You don't know what you're doing" was accompanied by a simple plea: "Sack McLeish." Time and again, the travelling supporters insisted: "We want our Villa back."
The Villa of old appears incompatible with McLeish, whose safety-first football, cautious tactics and predilection for leaving inventive players on the bench all count against him.
"I'm not going to get into a spat with the fans," McLeish said.
He is sufficiently honest to admit the insults hurt. "Nobody likes it," he added. "I can't say it is water off a duck's back but I understand the modern-day thinking. I have got a great challenge here, it's a tough one, but I am up for it. It's probably one of the toughest jobs in the Premier League but I am confident we will prosper."
That requires improvement. Yet while Villa are in the comparative safety of 15th place, theirs is a joyless grind to safety. In their lowest position of the season, it is not enough for those who remember three top-six finishes in the past four seasons. "The fans are expecting Aston Villa to come to Wigan and win," McLeish said.
Wigan's fans, meanwhile, rarely taste victory. It is six months since Wigan won on their own turf, a record that makes demotion a growing probability.
"It is a worry because of the position we are in," said Martinez. "We have six games left at home and we have to win at home to achieve our aim."
An uneventful game illustrated the contrasting problems of these two teams. Wigan lack a goalscorer to convert pleasing play into victories. They threatened only at the end when Hugo Rodallega's sharp shot just cleared the bar, and when Villa's Shay Given saved from the Colombian and then Franco di Santo.
No one is prolific and it is no coincidence: Wigan are English football's lowest scorers. They failed in January attempts to sign Fulham's Andrew Johnson and Bristol City's Nicky Maynard, who preferred to join the Championship side West Ham United instead.
Villa have the strikers, with the £18 million (Dh104.9m) Darren Bent accompanied by Robbie Keane, who has cost more than £70m over the course of his career, but rarely showed the ambition or adventure to supply them.
Keane was the sole creative force, which should be of particularly little consolation as he now trades Villa for California, his loan spell from Los Angeles Galaxy having expired.
He drew a save from Ali Al Habsi with a low drive and then, with a delightful pass, created the best chance of the game. Bent ran on to it but his shot was tipped wide by the Wigan goalkeeper.
"I felt the best chances fell to Aston Villa," McLeish said. An unmarked Carlos Cuellar headed wide but the visitors ended up hanging on, losing their record signing, though not the game. Bent was carried off with an ankle injury that rules him out of England's Wednesday friendly with Holland and could sideline him for rather longer. "It seems serious," McLeish said.
So is his plight, as well as Wigan's. While they never win at home and Villa draw more than anyone else in the division, there was a certain inevitability to the outcome. But it does little for the cause of the manager Villa did want, or the man they eventually appointed.
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