Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner yesterday staged a remarkable public show of confidence in manager Gerard Houllier with an £18m bid for the Sunderland striker Darren Bent and more to follow, with the club pursuing Blackpool's Charlie Adam and Maynor Figueroa of Wigan.
The spending on Bent, for whom a deal is expected to be announced today, would take the investment in Villa by the American billionaire to around £200m in transfer fees alone since he bought the club in August 2006.
It is also intended to dispel suggestions that Lerner was disenchanted with Houllier, whose team are 17th in the Premier League and only out of the relegation places on goal difference.
While Villa have reasserted themselves in the transfer market, there were still suggestions yesterday that they may have to accept an offer for Ashley Young, whose contract runs out in the summer next year.
Manchester United are thought to be in the strongest position of those considering Young as an option. But United are adamant that they will not make any signings this month.
The deal for Bent moved quickly yesterday, with the clubs expected to come to an agreement within the next 24 hours.
In principle, Sunderland have accepted an offer of £18m that could rise to £24m -- comfortably a club record for Villa -- and the player himself wants the move.
Sunderland manager Steve Bruce is understood to have accepted the deal reluctantly, with the proviso that his club's owner Ellis Short allowed him to reinvest some of the money this month.
The Black Cats are already close to a deal for Paris St-Germain midfielder Stephane Sessegnon.
Bruce is also thought to be an admirer of Stoke's Turkish playmaker Tuncay Sanli.
Villa have still not received official notification from Blackpool that their offer of £3.5m for Adam last week has been rejected.
As part of his remodelling of the Villa team, Houllier also wants left-back Figueroa (27) to replace Stephen Warnock, who is sought by former club Liverpool.
The clearout of the likes of Warnock, John Carew and Stephen Ireland is likely to continue this month, with Houllier adamant to the club's board that huge changes need to be made to the playing staff.
The acquisition of Bent follows Villa's £6m signing of Lyons midfielder Jean Makoun.
Yesterday Sunderland released a brief statement that they had been given "a written transfer request" by Bent after the 1-1 draw with Newcastle at the Stadium of Light.
Bent shares an agent, Neil Fewings, with Villa's assistant manage Gary McAllister, who is the most influential figure among Houllier's back-room staff.
The loss of Bent will represent a blow to Bruce, whose team are sixth in the Premier League and for whom the striker was one of the side's marquee names.
He scored 25 goals last season and was the club's second most expensive signing behind Asamoah Gyan.
However, Sunderland regard what could turn out to be a £10m profit on the player as justification for the deal -- even though Bent's previous club Tottenham will be entitled to a cut of that money -- especially given Bent's determination to force it through.
Bruce had previously ruled out a potential move for Michael Owen at Manchester United, although his need for a striker is much greater since Bent's transfer request on Sunday.
The club had also been working on a deal for the Internazionale midfielder Sulley Muntari.
While Bruce is a long-term admirer of Villa winger Stewart Downing, sources at Villa say that the prospect of the England international going to Sunderland was never part of the discussions for Bent.
It was always Villa's intention to complete the deal quickly for money rather than slow the process down by trying to persuade players to go in the opposite direction.
Bent has scored 12 goals in all competitions this season, but has struck only once in the Premier League since November.
Sunderland are understood to have been aware that he was unhappy, but did not realise the extent of his dissatisfaction.
He is known to be a close follower of fans' online message-boards and the club feel that he may have been too sensitive to recent criticism of him. (© Independent News Service)