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Ireland talks roll on

MARTIN O'Neill's shock departure from Aston Villa has not stopped discussions going ahead between the club and the agent of Manchester City's midfielder Stephen Ireland, with a view to a £26m cash/player move which would see James Milner head to Eastlands.

There was some concern that the deal was under threat after O'Neill quit Villa, but his decision was over the destination of the proceeds from Milner's intended sale.

The backlash has begun against O'Neill who has come under furious criticism for walking out on Villa just five days before the start of the Premier League season, as one of the club's directors accused him of putting self-interest ahead of the financial sustainability of the club.

As the club's owner, Randy Lerner, and chief executive, Paul Faulkner, began discussions on O'Neill's replacement, Lerner's right-hand man and non-executive Villa director, General Charles C Krulak, insisted O'Neill knew of the need to balance wages against revenue but considered himself "bigger than the club" and had simply refused to buy into the idea of curbing spiralling wage costs.

"No one person is bigger than our club. Not Randy, not Paul Faulkner, not Martin and not me," Krulak said. "What is interesting is that, apparently, only three of those named understand that fact. A Premier League club must balance wages against revenue. Cutting wages must include the sale of players."

Sven Goran Eriksson, Gareth Southgate and Bob Bradley each made it clear yesterday that they covet the job, which Lerner hopes to have filled by the club's second league game -- at Newcastle on 22 August.

But the chances of Mark Hughes leaving the Fulham position he has just taken up, for a job which would have suited his own family far better, appear to be minimal. Sources close to him say Hughes is keenly anticipating the task ahead of him in London.

Villa do not seem to believe that Martin Jol's decision to reject Fulham and stay at Ajax last month precludes him taking over from O'Neill, by buying himself out of his contract. But Ajax indicated last night that they were confident he was happy to stay.

It is unclear whether O'Neill, who spent £120m over four years at Villa, has signed the usual confidentiality agreement, which would prevent him from disclosing precisely when he decided that the denial to him of the entire proceeds of the Milner deal made his position untenable.

But he was certainly in excellent form last Thursday when Villa Park was the venue for a meeting of Premier League managers and referees. O'Neill bantered and challenged referees in a way which made other managers present astonished to learn on Monday that he had quit, only four days later.

There was also a feeling in management circles yesterday that O'Neill must have been nursing a bitter grievance to leave at such a time. Krulak said O'Neill had been made perfectly aware of the need to rein in on spending. "I can promise everyone that he (O'Neill) knew and understood the long-range plans for the club and bought into them," he said.

"He knew full well about the need to bring wages in line with revenue, the same as every Premier League club. He was absolutely supported by the owner during his time. All one needs to do is look at the money spent. The reality is that the wage-to-revenue issue was not addressed and Martin apparently was unwilling to help address it. He quit."

Villa's wage bill for the last financial year shot up to £71m, an increase of 42pc, at a time when others seeking a top four place, including Chelsea, have been trying to bring wages down.

Curtis Davies, the central defender O'Neill had transfer-listed as part of the drive to bring down wages, joined the criticism of the manager. "It is not an ideal situation four days before the season, not to have a manager," he said.

Andy Gray, who spent two years at Villa Park as a player, said O'Neill had let down the club's fans. "It's hugely disappointing, in that it's a decision that's given no thought to the Aston Villa fans," he said.

The reserve team coach, Kevin MacDonald, is still expected to be in charge for West Ham's visit in Saturday's Premier League opener.