Dunne calls for fans' backing
An air of desperate gloom has descended on Aston Villa since their home 2-1 defeat against Bolton last Tuesday night plunged Alex McLeish's men deep into the Premier League relegation mire.
A team packed with young, inexperienced professionals being led by an increasingly reviled manager has created a situation that is threatening to drag one of the biggest names in English football through the trap door.
However, good news has punctured the misery at Villa Park ahead of their crucial derby game at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, with experienced defender Richard Dunne set to return to action after recovering from the collarbone injury he picked up in mid-February.
In a frank and forthright interview with ESPNsoccernet, the Dubliner revealed Villa's training ground has been something of a glum place in recent days, but he has appealed to the club's supporters to banish their animosity and rally behind the cause in the last three games of the campaign.
Is the torrent of criticism flowing in the direction of manager Alex McLeish justified?
Richard Dunne: It's not fair. The manager can only pick the team that's available and we only have about 11 senior players. We've got lots of youth players on the bench and it's just not happening for us at the moment.
Can you survive in the Premier League without the backing of the Villa fans?
RD: We need the fans to realise that they have to get behind us. Obviously they have a bee in their bonnet about the manager, but we need their support and to be fair to the boss, he's doing his best he can in the circumstances. We're all behind him as a team and we're all playing for him and we just need to get the result to make sure we stay in the Premier League for next season.
So would you appeal to the supporters to put their grievances to one side for the next three games and get behind the team?
RD: Without a doubt. Everybody understands the frustrations of the supporters and we know they are not happy with us as players, the management and the club as a whole. However, we need the supporters to forget about all that upset for three weeks because if they want to watch Premier League football next season, the best thing they can do is support us and whatever happens, happens after that.
Do the players have sympathy for your manager when they see the fans turning on him like they did in the Bolton game on Tuesday night?
RD: It's a tough situation for him. The manager is trying his hardest and it's just one of those situations where the injury list has grown and grown. He's not been able to get the players he wants on the field at the same time, but the manager won't be sitting around feeling sorry for himself. He knows the job in hand and it will be up to him. He's a good character and he'll be the one picking us up.
If it were not for the injury crisis that has struck the club, do you think you would be in this position?
RD: When you look at it, we weren't in a bad position at the turn of the year. We were one win away from going into the top ten, but the injury list slowly grew. We had Robbie Keane doing well for us for a while and then he went back to America, before Darren Bent got injured and then everyone got injured. If the manager could pick 11 senior players, it would make a massive difference. As good as the young lads are, it's very hard to ask them to play 20 games in a season.
What has the mood been like at the training ground in the last few days?
RD: People are down. No-one likes losing game and with the importance of the game against Bolton it was always going to be disappointing for people, but it's one of those where you have to forget the last 35 games and just focus on the three games left to play. Everyone needs to get the right head on and do their job.
Can your return to fitness be a catalyst for the team picking up the points needed to survive?
RD: I've made myself available because I want to be part of helping the squad stay up. Everyone should be excited and determined to go out and win tackles, win headers and win everything. We've got to walk off the pitch on Saturday at West Brom knowing we've done our jobs and hopefully got three points from it.
You have been relegated before during your time with Manchester City, so talk a little about the emotions you went through back then?
RD: I know how horrible relegation is and it's not something I want to be involved in again. Still, we are where we are and we need to do what we can now in the next few weeks. It's not a nice situation, but I'd rather be in our situation than Blackburn's or Bolton's. It's still in our own hands and we've got a good enough squad to get out of it.
Can you see a bright future at Villa if you can survive this relegation battle?
RD: Absolutely. The youth set up at this club has a lot of good players coming through, but it would have been nice if we could play two or three of them and nine experienced players instead of eight or nine of them with two or three experienced players. If we can stay out of trouble and stay in the league, then next season when we look back and say this experience was great for the young lads.
Will Aston Villa ever compete with the top clubs in the Premier League again?
RD: It's difficult. When big clubs come waving big cheques at people it is very tough for the players as well to turn down. That's the way it goes. The likes of Manchester City and Manchester United now are so much of a force that it's not just Aston Villa's best players, they'll take whoever's best players they can find throughout the world. Some top players have left this club in recent years and it's hard to replace them.
Villa have never been relegated from the Premier League, so sum up the mood in the camp as you try to maintain that proud record.
RD: None of us want to be part of an Aston Villa squad that took one of the biggest clubs in Britain down. We cannot let that thought enter our mind as we need to win on Saturday against Albion, go and beat Spurs and then beat Norwich. It's not been a great season for us but we are where we are and we have to make sure we sort it out as quickly as possible.
• Richard Dunne was speaking to ESPNsoccernet in association with Aston Villa's charity partner Acorn.