Football: Clough doctrine alive and well

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Aston Villa 1 Leicester City 3

Like a blindfolded panellist on They Think It's All Over groping for the identity of the guest celebrity, Brian Little felt the contents of the Jiffy bag handed to him by a steward. "Lira?" the Villa manager wondered aloud. "No, it's a video tape. . . Brother of Savo!"

Little's sense of humour, in the wake of a comprehensive defeat by the club he left in messy circumstances, proved more resilient than his team. Savo is of course Milosevic, the one-footed Serb he signed on the strength of a "greatest hits" video and who now holds the key to his hopes of commanding menace with money. Before offering the pounds 6m which might persuade Liverpool to part with Stan Collymore, Little must complete the on-off sale of Milosevic to Perugia. Villa have trimmed the price to pounds 4.25m (or more Italian notes than you could fit in an executive box, let alone an envelope), but in the meantime Little should subject his side to a screening of Saturday's shambles.

They would see a team who, man for man, should not be in the same league as Villa, ready to run the length and breadth of the Midlands to ensure that they are around next August. The older or more perceptive among them might also recognise a resemblance between the tactics employed by Martin O'Neill and John Robertson and those which Leicester's managerial duo executed to such effect under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.

Whenever remotely threatened, the visitors pulled almost everyone behind the ball. Not content simply to soak up pressure, they viewed it as a platform to strike on the break. The game plan was made possible by the lung-bursting mobility of Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet (who also found time to finish off Villa with a splendid goal). Aware that his best passer, Garry Parker, is not the quickest of players and can be closed down more easily, O'Neill detailed the Leicester tigers to share his workload in the central area.

O'Neill also has the Clough-like ability to coax performances above the capabilities of ostensibly ordinary players. Fanciful as it may seem to liken Spencer Prior and Steve Walsh to Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, Leicester's old-fashioned stoppers played - to use an analogy which the former Forest pair might appreciate - as if supping in the Last Chance saloon.

If there is a cloud on the Filbert Street horizon it concerns the lack of depth in O'Neill's squad. Here he was reduced to choosing for a place on the bench between a trialist, Stuart Slater, and a teenaged trainee; and that was with only one player, Pontus Kamark, unavailable. And his keeper, Kasey Keller, is to miss several matches due to World Cup duty with the United States.

Despite feeling "ecstatic", it was intriguing that O'Neill made public the fact that his chairman, Martin George, thought it merely "an OK result." One can only hope that Mr George, who has a habit of losing managers, is not as blase as he sounds. O'Neill did well to acquire Izzet and Lennon for barely pounds 700,000, but he needs increased funding to cover for the injuries and loss of form which affect every team.

Villa are a case in point. Unable to recover from the harsh penalty award which allowed Parker to score against his old club, they have now beaten only Leeds and Forest in the last 12 games. They badly missed Mark Bosnich, and look to have let Paul McGrath go too soon. Fernando Nelson is not as adept at working his flank as the injured Gary Charles, either, compounding the impression that Little's system has become too predictable.

He conceded there had been "a dip" in form and recalled, in a coded promise to enter the market this week, how he had "reacted positively" to similar problems in the past. It must be questionable whether Collymore has the discipline to fit in at Villa - apart from a tendency to go Awol, it is hard to imagine him working back as Emile Heskey did - though Leicester's example highlights the folly of writing anyone off before a ball is kicked.

Goals: Claridge (8) 0-1; Keller og (15) 1-1; Parker pen (42) 1- 2; Izzet (85) 1-3.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Tiler; Nelson (Draper, 57), Taylor, Curcic (Joachim, 60), Townsend, Wright; Yorke, Johnson. Substitutes not used: Farrelly, Scimeca, Rachel (gk).

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Prior, Watts, Walsh; Grayson, Parker, Lennon, Izzet, Whitlow; Heskey, Claridge. Substitutes not used: Hill, Marshall, Lawrence, Slater, Poole (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).

Bookings: Villa: Townsend. Leicester: Heskey.

Man of the match: Izzet.

Attendance: 36,193.