Martin O'Neill goes back to Aston Villa on Saturday for the first time since his resignation five days before the start of the 2010‑11 season. If some Villa fans have never quite forgiven the man now in charge of Sunderland for leaving, many would happily take him back tomorrow.

"I had the privilege of managing one of the finest clubs in England with a great tradition and great history and I was there for four years," said O'Neill, who finished sixth in the Premier League in his last three campaigns at Villa Park.

Such appearances ultimately proved deceptive. "Things were a little sour in the final season," acknowledged the Sunderland manager. "The irony of that was it was our best season. We finished in the top six, were about six points off the Champions League places and reached the semi-final of the FA Cup and final of the League Cup. But that can't be helped, sometimes these things happen."

O'Neill took a claim of constructive dismissal against Villa to the FA Premier League managers' arbitration tribunal, where the dispute was resolved in his favour.

"I'm not going into any explanations of anything. I don't think on the eve of the match that is the right time to do it," said O'Neill. "Maybe at some stage or another the clearing-up of an issue or two might be useful but it's not going to be today. I am part of Aston Villa's past now and I hopefully belong to Sunderland's future, certainly the immediate future. That's how I view it."

Ellis Short, Sunderland's owner, has challenged O'Neill to achieve further top‑six finishes on Wearside but the Northern Irishman is undaunted: "Of course it's achievable, absolutely. This club is big enough to be able to have those sort of demands put on it. That should be the ambition."

While he has breathed new life into Sunderland, who are ninth having maintained real relegation fears when O'Neill arrived at the club in December, Villa have regressed under Alex McLeish this season. They are perched, perilously, in 15th, six points above the bottom three, and regard victory on Saturday as imperative. "Aston Villa will rise again to be a great club," said O'Neill. "It might not happen tomorrow but it will happen."

McLeish's cause has been further hindered by the absence of both his principal striker, Darren Bent, and his captain and key midfielder Stilian Petrov. While Bent's ankle injury is slowly healing, the Bulgarian has acute leukaemia and is receiving intense treatment.

"Stilian is going through many courses of chemotherapy," said O'Neill who, since Petrov's recent diagnosis, has been in regular contact with a player he managed at Celtic and Villa. "I have seen Stilian and he is a remarkable young man; he is very upbeat. It's going to be a pretty tough, rough ride for him but he's ready for it.

"I haven't spoken to him for a couple of days but depending on how the chemotherapy has gone, Stilian might be at the game. If he is, I'll certainly be saying hello. He was great for me."

O'Neill's "admiration" for McLeish will ensure cordial relations between the two technical areas at Villa Park , even though there was a time when, as managers of Celtic and Rangers respectively, it was politic for the pair to keep their distance. "I never went out to dinner with him, put it that way," said O'Neill. "I wouldn't want to have been seen in any corner of Glasgow eating with the Rangers manager. It might have been the last time I would have eaten."

Should, as predicted, home fans distribute "McLeish Out" flyers before kick-off, the Villa manager may need to rely on all his Glasgow-honed survival instincts but the Scot is clearly frustrated that the dissenters do not appreciate assorted mitigating factors, including a tight budget.

"There are a lot of quality players who have left the club since Martin departed and maybe just before he left," said McLeish. "That's why I said our squad at the start of the season lacked a bit of experience – and I prayed the experienced players would stay fit.

"It has certainly not worked out that way. A lot of young players have been forced into action, maybe a little bit before their time."