The knives are out for Gérard Houllier, yet within the Aston Villa boardroom there is no desire to sharpen them. Despite growing supporter unrest towards the Frenchman, who cut a forlorn and beleaguered figure after a chastening result that leaves the team mired in relegation trouble, a senior boardroom source has insisted there is no prospect of him being relieved of the manager's job before the end of the season.
That stance would seem to go against the wishes of the majority of fans, judging by the protests before, during and after a defeat to a resurgent Wolves side that leaves Villa one point above the bottom three. It started with a banner unfurled prior to kick-off that read: "Had enough. Houllier out". This progressed to chants of "You don't know what you're doing" when Marc Albrighton was withdrawn in the second half, and finished with vitriol raining down from the stands at the final whistle.
Patience has run out with a man whose record since he was appointed in September – 26 points from 25 matches – qualifies as relegation form. That run of results would be damaging for any Villa manager, let alone someone whose reign has been synonymous with player unrest and who has no goodwill to fall back on because of a number of public relations disasters. Yet the word from the top is that appetite for change among the punters is not shared by the key decision-makers.
Asked whether the club could guarantee Houllier would stay until the end of the season and beyond, the board member said: "Of course. I don't see why people would react so extremely and expect differently. I haven't seen anything in Gérard's body language that suggests he is losing faith. It's been a bitterly disappointing day [against Wolves]. But nothing's changed. We remain committed to the same long-term strategy.
"It's important we show unity from the boardroom to the management, from the terraces to the players."
Even if Villa slip into the bottom three over the next few matches – which is quite possible given they travel to Everton next – Houllier, the source claimed, will stay on. "We have eight games to go and we have more than enough to believe we will stay up. We know we're in a battle and we're going to have to scrap, but we're in this scrap together. I can't see how changing [the manager] with four games to go would have any positive impact on how the team plays anyway."
Supporters may argue otherwise. Houllier, after all, has a talented squad at his disposal, and it is easy to imagine the presence of a new manager with fresh ideas injecting renewed belief into a group of players whose performances on Saturday had the look of a side sleepwalking towards the Championship.
The former England manager Steve McClaren, who is out of work but keen to return to the Premier League after his experiences with FC Twente and Wolfsburg, would be a potential replacement.
It is also tempting to wonder how much more Houllier can tolerate. He seemed genuinely shocked by the hostility directed towards him and admitted he has never encountered anything similar in a career that stretches back 38 years. Frustration, however, has been festering since he made the ill-judged decision to sacrifice the FA Cup by picking a weakened team at Manchester City for the sixth round. A first defeat to Wolves in 31 years brought that discontent bubbling to the surface.
Although Ashley Young hit the bar for Villa late on and Darren Bent should have been awarded a penalty, Wolves thoroughly deserved a rare away victory that arrived courtesy of Matt Jarvis's excellent volley and lifted them to within a point of their Midlands rivals.
"[Villa] are not used to being in this position," said the Wolves striker Kevin Doyle. "They will be looking over their shoulder. It is getting a bit nervy for them. For us, it is just positive. We are below them but we are playing well."