DRAPER Virtuoso at Villa's heart
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The Independent Online
Mark Draper is often compared with Paul Gascoigne, and not only because he can be endearingly daft. Draper reputedly plays imaginary guitar with his teeth in homage to Jimi Hendrix, once stated an ambition to try his luck in Serie A with Barcelona, and has a laugh that could be measured on the Richter scale. But, like Gazza, he is also as deft as a brush.

In Aston Villa's victory at Wembley last Sunday, Ian Taylor ran the legs off Leeds while Andy Townsend overpowered them. Dwight Yorke and Savo Milosevic struck memorable goals. Yet for the watching Sheffield Wednesday manager, David Pleat, the most telling difference was Draper's distributive skill; an element that could also tilt the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool tomorrow Villa's way.

Since the creative hub of Villa's Coca-Cola Cup final opponents was Gary McAllister, the man widely regarded as Britain's finest playmaker and around whom Pleat built his Leicester team, it is a judgement not to be dismissed lightly. Draper's virtuosity is all the more impressive for the fact that while his hair may be 45, he is only 25.

"It's unusual for one so young to be able to conduct the orchestra," Pleat said. "Draper doesn't pose on the ball but he has poise on it. He has this incredible ability to take time on the ball, to make a frenetic game stand still for a second.

"He's strong but not fast, though he thinks quickly. When him and Tommy Johnson were kids at Notts County, Johnson had speed without brains. But Draper always had that intelligence, that gift of being able make the play.

"I reckon that when he was at Nottingham he used to come over to watch Leicester, because I can see a lot of McAllister in him. He can shoot - his body action is beautiful for volleying - and he hits these wicked inswinging free-kicks from the left with his right foot."

A pounds 1.45m transfer saw Draper eventually follow in McAllister's footsteps at Filbert Street, where he came under Brian Little's wing. A get-out clause in his contract allowed him to move on if Leicester were relegated, and Manchester United, Blackburn and Liverpool all had a sniff last summer before Little paid pounds 3.25m to take him across the Midlands.

Villa have coaches for each part of the team. Guided by John Gregory, the midfield specialist, Draper admits he has learned not to attempt "the wonder ball" every time. In his year at Leicester he had already been invited by Terry Venables to a training weekend to assess England's young contenders. Now, in Pleat's view, he has an all-round game that might be worth testing out at international level.

"Jamie Redknapp [who may be in direct opposition to Draper at Old Trafford] seems to be ahead of him in England terms. But he plays a shorter game whereas Draper can do the short link-play and the longer passes. He can switch play and get the full-backs in down the wings, which is a bit of a disappearing art."

A recent Premiership match against Blackburn provided a classic example of Draper's instinctive understanding of the geometry of the game. Receiving from his left, he spun and hit an angled 40-yard pass that picked out Gary Charles charging up the right. The wing-back chested the ball down before crossing for Julian Joachim to head past Tim Flowers.

Liverpool must also be wary of Draper's penchant for stunning goals of his own. One, at Ipswich in the FA Cup, was a thunderous drive following a mazy dribble. Against Peterborough in the Coca-Cola Cup, Townsend flicked up a free-kick for Draper to control the ball on his thigh and volley in from 20 yards.

Mark Bosnich, the Villa keeper, claims Draper enjoys an 80 per cent success rate with this "Ernie Hunt" routine in training. All things considered, it is surprising that his goal tally is a mere five. However, when Johnson is fit, Villa basically play three forwards, forcing those in the engine room to exercise caution about when to "bomb on".

Draper may not track back as diligently as Little would like. His concentration is also prone to wander, allowing opponents to hustle him off the ball. Liverpool are more likely than Leeds to punish any such lapses, and will match Villa's 3-5-2 formation without anyone playing in a position foreign to them.

They have also trounced Villa 3-0 this month - when Draper was absent injured - as well as beating them 2-0 away weeks earlier, but Pleat maintains they are not necessarily favourites. "Villa will be buoyed by the win at Wembley. They've got a system that works and which they have confidence in. If the midfield get the front players going like last week, they've got a very strong chance."