'Top four? Never mind that, I think we'll win it,' he joked.
Today, as Villa sit three points behind leaders Manchester United after an 11-game unbeaten run, O'Neill will not be able to use that line anymore, chiefly because no one - least of all the unofficial four-team elite - believes Villa's threat to their cartel is an empty one.
All smiles: Emile Heskey
If six successive away league victories were not enough, the decision to splash £3.5million on Wigan Athletic's Emile Heskey has also reaped an immediate dividend in the form of a smart first-half winner at Portsmouth on Tuesday.
Heskey had started the move before completing it with the assistance of the pacy Gabriel Agbonlahor.
'There's a sense here of what can be achieved, definitely,' said Heskey. 'Every season you see the same old names in the top four, but hopefully we can break into it.
'It's a first impression but I think we have the squad with the right qualities. We've got some very individual players but a set that play as a team. You have got to have both, you must be collectively strong but there also has to be some individual stuff going on.
'The fighting spirit was typified at Pompey, the back four were brilliant, they had all sorts of stuff thrown at them with Peter Crouch, who is one of the best, up front. It looks and feels like a tight squad. Everyone gets on with everyone else.
'I know a lot of them from playing against them and also from the England set-up. We had a similar spirit at Wigan. The lads were very close-knit there. Perhaps that's why the club has been doing so well. We went out for meals. It seems the same here.'
THE O'NEILL FACTOR.
Barclays Premier League Table on November 10, 2008 (After Villa were defeated at home by Middlesbrough) P W D L F A Pts Chelsea12 9 2 1 29 4 29Liverpool.12 9 2 1 19 8 29Arsenal. 12 7 2 3 25 13 23Man Utd. 11 6 3 2 20 10 21Aston Villa. 12 6 2 4 20 16 20
Villa have since gone 11 Premier League matches unbeaten.
Arsenal 0 Aston Villa 2 (15/11/2008)Aston Villa 0 Man Utd 0 (22/11/2008)Aston Villa 0 Fulham 0 (29/11/2009)Everton 2 Aston Villa 3 (7/12/2008)Aston Villa 4 Bolton 2 (13/12/2008)West Ham 0 Aston Villa 1 (20/12/2008)Aston Villa 2 Arsenal 2 (26/12/2008)Hull 0 Aston Villa 1 (30/12/2008)Aston Villa 2 West Brom 1 (10/1/2009)Sunderland 1 Aston Villa 2 (17/1/2009)Portsmouth 0 Aston Villa 1 (27/1/2009)
Remaining gamesHome AwayChelsea Blackburn Stoke City Man CityTottenham LiverpoolEverton Man UtdWest Ham BoltonHull City FulhamNewcastle Middlesbrough
Arrivals under Martin O'Neill Stilian Petrov (Celtic) 6.5mDidier Agathe (Celtic) FreeChris Sutton (Birmingham) FreeJohn Carew (Lyon) SwapAshley Young (Watford) 9.5mShaun Maloney (Celtic) 1mNigel Reo-Coker (West Ham) 7.5mGabor Kiraly (Crystal Palace) FreePhil Bardsley (Man Utd) LoanMarlon Harewood (West Ham) 4mZat Knight (Fulham) 4mMoustapha Salifou (FC Wil) 250kWayne Routledge (Tottenham) 1.25mScott Carson (Liverpool) LoanCurtis Davies (West Brom) 10mSteve Sidwell (Chelsea) 5mBrad Friedel (Blackburn) 2mBrad Guzman (Chivas) 400kNicky Shorey (Reading) 5mLuke Young (Middlesbrough) 5mCarlos Cuellar (Rangers) 7.8mJames Milner (Newcastle) 10mEmile Heskey (Wigan) 3.5mTotal Spending: 82.7mDepartures under Martin O'NeillMathieu Berson (Levante) FreeKevin Phillips (Birmingham) 700kUlises De La Cruz (Reading) FreePeter Wittingham (Cardiff) 350kMilan Baros (Lyon) SwapJuan Pablo Angel (New York Red Bulls) FreeJay Lloyd Samuel (Bolton) FreeGavin McCann (Bolton) 1mAaron Hughes (Fulham) 1mSteve Davies (Fulham) 4mDidier Agathe (Released)Chris Sutton (Released)Lee Hendrie (Sheff Utd) FreeLiam Ridgewell (Birmingham) 2mGary Cahill (Bolton) 5mLuke Moore (West Brom) 2.5mPatrik Berger (Released)Erik Djemba-Djemba (Released)Wayne Routledge (QPR) 600kTotal recieved: 12.15m