At half-time, the boos rang around Villa Park. Aston Villa trailed 1-0 against Southampton and had been mostly clueless. At full-time, the jeers were less fierce. Villa had lost but a stirring late rally had generated a touch of warmth towards them. At least they had given it a go.

Fans recognise effort and work rate as much as they do a lack of passion and apathy. As they drifted off into the numbingly cold evening on Saturday, the second-half revival – albeit in a losing cause – had perhaps offered them hope for the future. At the moment, it is all they have to cling to.

Villa lie in 18th place in the Premier League, languishing in the bottom three for the first time since mid-November, when they were thumped 5-0 at Manchester City. The revival that followed that rout, a six-match unbeaten run, has evaporated; Villa are in freefall.

Yet stability is needed, not knee-jerk reaction to please the populace. It is why Randy Lerner, the Villa chairman, will stick by Paul Lambert, his manager. For the moment. It is why there may be a wise addition or two to the playing squad, not wholesale panic buying, before the transfer window closes at the end of this month.

The manager-chairman partnership is key and, after the ill-fated and short-lived reign of Alex McLeish at Villa Park, perspective is called for. Lambert recognises that but accepts that, for the £150m-plus that Lerner has invested in the club, more is expected. Much more.

"I always speak to Randy," he said. "I've always had a good relationship with him. He's been great with me. If you look at the years he's been here, he's put in an incredible amount of money. You can't fault what he has done for this club. I understand the finances of it. I'm pretty sure he is astute enough, I'm not silly. I know the pitfalls of the game.

"It's a privilege to be here and we will give it a right good go. We go with what we've got but if a couple [of players] come in during January, then great. It would be wrong for me to say that there is X amount of money available but we will try to do something. Yes, I still think we will be safe [from relegation]. I just do. I've said that from day one."

Excuses are readily available in football yet circumstances have undoubtedly conspired against Villa, with the long-term loss of many of their experienced players. Lambert has been forced to field line-ups who would not be out of place in a kindergarten and, more often than not, they have perished under the weight of responsibility.

That Ron Vlaar, the Villa defender and captain, returned on Saturday after a lengthy lay-off with a calf injury – albeit in a non-playing role on the substitutes' bench – should provide extra on-field guidance for the young bucks. A no-nonsense skipper is needed back before the ship sinks; Vlaar must reinstil strong leadership at the helm.

Still, optimism abounds. "There are enough characters," Ciaran Clark, the stand-in captain, said. "There's definitely enough togetherness between us. We're all sticking together. We've got a few experienced lads coming back from injury and that will give the younger lads a big boost."

Circumstances, again, conspired against Villa when Mark Halsey, the referee, awarded Southampton a penalty. Jay Rodriguez fell over under a challenge that bordered on the nonexistent from Enda Stevens and Rickie Lambert tucked in the 31st successful spot-kick, from 31 attempts, of his career. A perfect record for the robust striker and a perfect reward for Southampton's first-half endeavours.

"It was a big three points for us," the striker said. "No disrespect to Villa but we know it's not an easy time for them at the moment. So we tried to take advantage of that. They put us under a lot of pressure in the second half and they're a good team. I think they will stay up easily."

Encouraging words, from Lambert to Lambert. And to judge by Villa's late surge, there is plenty of life left in them as the relegation scrap intensifies. Nathan Baker nodded against the crossbar and had Christian Benteke's radar been switched on, which it had not been throughout the game, a draw may have been salvaged.

Victory enabled Southampton to ease above Villa and yet, not long ago, Nigel Adkins, their manager, appeared to have the hangman's noose dangling above him at St Mary's Stadium. The hierarchy at the south-coast club kept calm, results have improved – only two defeats in 11 matches, both by the score of 1-0 – and the noose has suddenly disappeared.

Lerner must keep his nerve, too. All too quickly, jeers can become cheers.

Man of the match Jason Puncheon (Southampton)