Ellis steps up Villa's pursuit of Gascoigne

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Relegation-threatened Aston Villa stole a march on other British clubs interested in signing Paul Gascoigne yesterday when Doug Ellis, their 71-year-old chairman, arrived in Rome to discuss the England midfielder's possible transfer from Lazio for £5m.

Villa, who need a point at Norwich on Sunday to be sure of staying in the Premiership, are understood to have agreed to pay the Italians £500,000 more than Rangers. The Scottish champions had a £4.5m offer for Gascoigne provisionally accepted last week.

In the absence of the manager Brian Little - like Gascoigne, a Tynesider - Ellis is accompanied by Steve Stride, the Villa secretary. The asking price apparently represents no problem for Villa. Although Gascoigne's wage demands are reputed to be around £20,000 a week, they are confident that his arrival would generate ample funds from increased sponsorship and gates.

Any deal would obviously depend on Villa's retaining top-flight status. Little, who has stayed behind to prepare for the match at Carrow Road, declined to be drawn into speculation but said: "No doubt the chairman and I will sit down and talk about the Gascoigne situation after that."

Villa, already concerned about the fitness of Steve Staunton and Dean Saunders, will definitely be without Ian Taylor at Norwich. The former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder tore a hamstring in Paul McGrath's testimonial match on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Birmingham have failed with a £300,000 bid for Jason Bowen, the Swansea striker.

Roy Keane has had the last obstacle blocking his FA Cup final appearance removed by the Football Association.

The Manchester United midfielder, facing a disrepute charge after being sent off for stamping in the semi-final replay against Crystal Palace, will not have to answer for his actions until after the Wembley game against Everton. Yesterday the FA set the Irishman's hearing for 26 May, which also clears him for a possible replay 24 hours earlier.

Keane has recovered from an ankle injury and could make his comeback in Sunday's final Premiership game at West Ham.

Keane's young United team-mate, Gary Neville, appears at Lancaster Gate today to answer for reaching 41 disciplinary points. At this late stage of the season he is likely to receive only a warning, which will free him to play at Wembley.

Bryan Robson has decided not to make German striker Uwe Fuchs' loan move to Middlesbrough permanent. The 28-year-old will return to Kaiserslautern despite scoring nine goals during his spell with the Endsleigh League First Division champions.

"Fuchs has done a great job for Middlesbrough but I could go for another Continental striker in the close season," Robson said. "Fuchs should have no problem finding another English club if he decides he wants to stay in this country."

Norwich are trying to bring their former striker Robert Fleck back to Carrow Road for their first season in the Endsleigh League after relegation this term. Chelsea are believed to want around £750,000 for Fleck, who has been a major disappointment since moving to Stamford Bridge for £2.1m three years ago.

"Clearly I would like to see Robert come back here if we are able to get him," the Norwich chairman, Robert Chase, said. "We tried to bring him back last season but the difficulty was the asking price. But there is an opportunity now and his name is back at the top of the tree."

Newly promoted Birmingham City have had a £300,000 bid for the Welsh international Jason Bowen rejected by Swansea. The Welsh club are looking for at least another £100,000 for the 22-year-old forward, who has scored only 10 goals during the current campaign but was sidelined for more than two months with damaged ankle ligaments.

Debt-ridden Exeter City, who finished at the bottom of the Endsleigh League, look to have been saved from oblivion at the 11th hour. A national company has made an offer that the administrators, who have run the club since November, say could secure the Third Division club's future.

In a separate development, the club has been offered a gift which would cover the £300,000 cost of playing next season. Trevor Frid, one of the joint administrators, speaking after a meeting of creditors, said they hoped to complete a deal by 18 May when the Football League will decide the fate of the 71-year-old club. It is around £1.5m in debt.

Swindon's manager, Steve McMahon, has told 11 players they can leave the club after its second successive relegation. McMahon has given free transfers to three youngsters and the former Newcastle defender Brian Kilcline, who has a year of his contract to run.

Bristol City have given free transfers to eight players following their relegation to the Second Division.

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