Football: British bulldog bites back at Villa

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Coventry City 1 Aston Villa 2

IN RECENT years the best place for an autograph hunter to spot a leading manager during an international break has been at an airport terminal. No sooner does the Premiership down boots for a fortnight and off they go, cheque book and mobile phones in hand, to scour leagues from Portugal to Estonia in search of the cheap foreign signing which will transform their team.

However, anyone hoping to catch John Gregory at Birmingham International will be better off staking out Knutsford Services on the M6. The Aston Villa manager will be spending the next two weeks pounding the motorways in pursuit of his one-man "buy British" campaign.

Gregory has steered his team to a six-point lead without using a single foreign outfield player and, after Saturday's defeat of Coventry, he said it was no coincidence.

"For sheer blood and guts and cussedness there is no one in the world to match a British player," said Gregory. "Look at the way we dug in there at the end. Having foreign players is all very well if you know what you're doing but it can cause friction in the dressing room, we know that from our own experience. They may seem cheaper but they're not when some of their wages are taken into account. And that can also be disruptive."

Gregory freely admitted that the influx of foreign players had lifted the technical standards of the English game but said his crusade was not a xenophobic one, it was based on common-sense. "I don't know enough about foreign players. Ruud Gullit and Arsene Wenger do. Wenger had worked with Petit, Vieira and Anelka while Gullit bought some of his ex-team-mates. Jim Smith has been fairly successful at Derby but maybe he spends a lot of time jumping on planes.

"We are bucking the trend and I want to do so, I hope it influences others. We actively use it as a sales pitch to attract youngsters. We say `look at Lee Hendrie, Gareth Barry, etc, all getting a chance in the first team'. A lot of British players are not being given the opportunity to perform."

Villa fans remembering the problems the club had with the likes of Sasa Curcic and Savo Milosevic - who was bought on the strength of a video - are likely to concur. At least while they are winning.

They did so on Saturday thanks to a brace of goals from the sort of player who typifies Gregory's tribute to the British pro, Ian Taylor. Now aged 30, Taylor did not enter the full-time ranks until, as a 24-year-old, Port Vale signed him from Moor Green. Two years later he arrived at Villa and, unspectacular but consistent, he has seen off several challenges to keep his midfield place. Like Ian Wright, another late developer, he appreciates his fortune, unlike Wright he is unlikely to be able to take it a stage further.

"I look at people in our dressing room like Gareth [Barry], who's 17 and training with England next week, and Lee [Hendrie], who's in the under- 21s, and I think `if only'," he said. "I was out of work at 17, I was still driving a forklift truck at 24. I still have dreams but it's really too late for me to have any hope of getting into the England scene. I am getting better and better as a player but it has come too late."

What particularly endears Taylor to Villa fans, at a time when loyalty seems ever rarer in the game, is that he really shares their love for the club. "Villa is special to me," the former Holte-Ender added. "Whenever I am injured or suspended and we are playing away I go with my mates, friends I've kept since school, and go in with the fans. I did it this year at Sheffield Wednesday."

Judging by the way the players and fans celebrated together after the game Taylor is not the only one to empathise with the terraces. There does seem an unusually strong team spirit at Villa - though it will only be properly tested when they start losing.

They have not done much of that under Gregory, just twice in 19 matches 15 of which have been won. Though multi-national Coventry showed a spirit which belied Gregory's reservations about foreign players Villa were clearly the better side. They are composed on the ball, well organised and support each other well. Australia's Mark Bosnich, the only non-Englishman, is an excellent goalkeeper and, though they lack an out-and-out goalscorer they chip in from several positions.

There is a doubt about their strength in depth but they have already used 17 players in the league, three more than the remarkable 1981 champions.

Villa, brimming with confidence, took the lead after Stan Collymore and Merson released Gary Charles whose cross was blocked by Roland Nilsson but swept in by Taylor. Ten minutes of Coventry pressure later, with Villa's defence briefly wobbling like a gazebo in a hurricane, Collymore and Hendrie freed Merson. He looked well offside but was allowed to set up Taylor's second. As Merson should have had a penalty for shirt-pulling by Marc Edworthy justice of a sort prevailed.

Villa should then have won at a canter but they relaxed and Coventry pulled a goal back through Trond Soltvedt. It was the first Villa had conceded in the league for nine hours and it was not enough.

Gordon Strachan, understandably, concentrated most of his ire on the linesman but saved a little for the first question about Leeds' interest in him whereupon he walked out of the press conference.

Goals: Taylor (29) 0-1; Taylor (39) 0-2; Soltvedt (70) 1-2.

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Breen (Wallemme, 76), Shaw, Edworthy; Telfer, Boateng, Quinn (Soltvedt, 59), Froggatt; Dublin, Whelan. Substitutes not used: P Hall, Clement, Ogrizovic (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Charles (Grayson, 67), Hendrie, Taylor, Thompson, Wright; Merson (Joachim, 69), Collymore. Substitutes not used: Scimeca, Draper, Oakes (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Coventry: Whelan. Aston Villa: Thompson, Taylor, Charles, Collymore.

Man of the match: Merson.

Attendance: 22,654.