ASTON Villa manager David O'Leary has made Newcastle midfielder Lee Bowyer his leading transfer target as he attempts to steer his side to safety in the bottom half of the Premiership.

With under-fire chairman Doug Ellis expected to make funds available when the transfer window re-opens on January 1, O'Leary is desperate to bolster a midfield that has failed to fire in the opening three months of the season.

The Villa boss is hoping to make at least two new additions at the turn of the year, with Bowyer topping his list of targets.

The 28-year-old started eight of Newcastle's first nine Premiership games this season before picking up a knee injury in last month's 1-0 defeat at Wigan.

In his absence, the Magpies have recorded three successive victories with Turkish international Emre combining effectively with Scott Parker at the heart of midfield.

With Albert Luque and Kieron Dyer also expected to be back in action by the turn of the year, Bowyer is in danger of being squeezed out of the first-team picture, despite his own return to fitness.

O'Leary has been monitoring the situation closely and sources in Birmingham suggest he is confident of prising the one-time England international from St James' Park.

The Irishman formed a close bond with Bowyer during their time at Leeds United and is hoping the promise of guaranteed first-team football will be enough to tempt him to the Midlands.

Graeme Souness is an avowed admirer of Bowyer's combative qualities but, after the midfielder almost joined Birmingham this summer, the Magpies manager cannot claim to view him as indispensable.

Indeed, were O'Leary to offer versatile left-footer Gareth Barry in exchange - as has been mooted in some quarters - Souness would find it difficult to turn the deal down.

Veteran left-back Robbie Elliott is currently the only alternative to first-choice full-back Celestine Babayaro, a player who has suffered a succession of injuries during his time on Tyneside.

If Bowyer were to make a move to Villa Park, he would be linking up with former Newcastle team-mate James Milner.

Milner, who is part of the England Under-21 side that will attempt to see off France in the second leg of their European Championships play-off tomorrow night, made a loan move to the Midlands as part of the deal that saw Nolberto Solano rejoin Newcastle in August.

Despite his fine form - the youngster has scored three goals in ten games - Villa have slumped to 17th place in the Premiership ahead of Saturday's trip to Sunderland.

Newcastle have gradually moved in the opposite direction but, despite the two clubs' contrasting fortunes, Milner insists he has no regrets about leaving St James' Park.

"No, definitely not," he said. "I don't regret anything and this is a great opportunity for me.

"Villa is a great club and, not long ago, all the talk that is flying around here was flying around at Newcastle.

"A few wins and we'll be back up there - that's all we need. There's no panic because all we need is a bit of luck and some consistency and we'll be fine."

* Strikers Shola Ameobi and Michael Chopra shared five goals as Newcastle inflicted Aston Villa's first Reserve League defeat of the season. Ameobi grabbed a 35 minute hat-trick while Chopra notched a brace in a 5-1 win.

Bowyer, making his comeback after a month out with a knee injury, was booked after only six minutes and played the rest of the match on a tightrope.

Villa took the lead after 20 minutes, Sam Williams netting in a goalmouth scramble.

But within three minutes Villa were behind as Ameobi produced two carbon copy right-foot finishes in the space of 60 seconds.

Chopra earned a penalty for a foul by Craig Gardner and sent goalkeeper Robert Olejnik the wrong way from the spot.

He took his tally to 11 goals in eight games when he side-footed home a Martin Brittain cross.

Bowyer had a 49th minute chance from a Chopra pass, but failed to get enough weight on his final shot after rounding Olejnik outside of the box.

However, eight minutes later Ameobi completed his hat-trick with a thunderous free kick through the wall into the right corner from the edge of the box.

Nine minutes later the match erupted as Ameobi and Osbourne squared up to each other and appeared to exchange blows. Referee Haines booked both players.

Yet within two minutes, Ameobi was lectured after a challenge on Paul Green, leaving coach Tommy Craig no option but to haul the striker off to avoid a red card.

NEWCASTLE: Caig; Gate, Cave, Edgar, Huntington, Clark (Atkin 55), Brittain, Bowyer, Ameobi (Finnigan 68), Chopra, Farman (Smylie 61).

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