City keep scrapping

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BBC2 was showing a documentary on Saturday night about the Foreign Legion, an army still staffed by men with a past to forget. Without wishing to trivialise their reasons it was tempting, viewing it a few hours after watching Manchester City, to wonder how many former City supporters were in the ranks.

Long-suffering is an over used description in football but it certainly applies to Manchester City fans. It was bad enough when United were only winning FA Cups, now it is championships at Old Trafford and relegation scraps at Maine Road. Even Saturday's unexpected 1-0 win at Aston Villa came with a sting in the tail: Coventry and Southampton also won, and City's safety remains far from assured.

Not that the club are letting their current predicament affect them. While Alan Ball, the manager, tells everyone in earshot that he feels no pressure and is looking forward to next season, the club prepared for Saturday's game with a party in Manchester's grandest hotel.

It was to commemorate the 20th anniversary of winning the Football League Cup when it was still called that. As Manchester United fans keep reminding them, City have not won any silverware since.

So it must have been particularly galling to arrive at Villa Park to hear the Premiership's loudest public address gleefully informing all and sundry that Villa would make a post-match lap of honour with the Coca-Cola Cup, as the trophy is now known.

There are two ways a team can react to this. They can say, "sod you, we're going spoil your party", or meekly accept their doom. City, this season, have done more of the latter than the former. Recent performances against the Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle showed courage and spirit, but other displays, against Bolton and Wimbledon, should have been played in yellow.

Ball, though he railed against Mark Lawrenson's televised suggestion that his team lacked "battlers", must be aware of this inconsistency. Why else would he spend Friday reminding his team of their "responsibilities" to the club? "They are very highly paid professional people," he noted.

Not that either side looked it on Saturday. For 40 minutes the game was dire. Fear infected City; Villa were jaded and understrength. A series of crude or clumsy fouls were City's only impact on proceedings and it was 36 minutes before either goalkeeper made a save. Even then Eike Immel was only tested by a team-mate, Steve Lomas. It was another eight minutes before Uwe Rosler disturbed Mark Bosnich and, by then, a 25-yard Alan Wright free-kick had left Immel's bar humming.

That brief flurry could not disguise the poverty of the half, reactions to which were illuminating. "Worst of the season," said a Villa regular. "Not bad," said a City man.

The second period improved and, but for a leaping save from Immel, Savo Milosevic would have given Villa a 57th-minute lead. That was a metaphorical kick up the backside to match the real one Ugo Ehiogu accidentally gave Rosler. City finally produced a sustained spell of pressure and, with 69 minutes gone, scored. Michael Brown went down the left and crossed to Niall Quinn who headed back for Lomas, the move's originator, to score off Paul McGrath's chest.

It was harsh on McGrath, who looked comfortably the best player on the pitch, but reward for Brown, who quickly followed up with a vital tackle on Tommy Johnson. The 19-year-old had taken responsibility from the start and it was his attitude, as well as his actions, that gave City the edge.

"They scrapped out a result," said Brian Little, the Villa manager, who had been in Ball's position last year. "You know the feeling," was Ball's response to Little when the final whistle went and the Villa manager admitted: "I'm pleased we're not part of it this time."

Villa's revival shows City fans what may be possible next season given a clear management policy and the finance to implement it. It is not clear if either exists at Maine Road.

Before dreaming of next season, City have to finish this one against a Liverpool side that put 10 goals past them in four days in October. This time, though, Liverpool have an FA Cup Final to think of. City also need someone else to drop points but Ball insisted: "If we win we will stay up." It would be terribly cruel - and typically City - if they won and did not.

Goal: Lomas (69).

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath, Staunton; Murray, Draper, Townsend, Wright; Johnson; Milosevic, Joachim (Davis, 76). Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Hendrie.

Manchester City (3-4-1-2): Immel; Brightwell, Symons, Curle; Summerbee, Lomas, Clough, Brown; Kinkladze; Rosler, Quinn. Substitutes not used: Frontzeck, Phillips, Kavelashvili.

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Bookings: Aston Villa: McGrath. Manchester City: Clough, Quinn.

Man of the match: Brown.

Attendance: 39,336.