Football: Collymore can make or break Villa's season

West Ham United 0 Aston Villa 0
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY BEFORE Aston Villa went out to defend their Premiership lead at Upton Park on Saturday, John Gregory, their manager, sat down with Stan Collymore in a quiet corner of the dressing-room and reminded him not to get involved in any "trouble".

Within two minutes of the kick-off he was squaring up to Steve Lomas. Within seven minutes he was booked for needlessly tripping Trevor Sinclair.

This is the Stan Collymore enigma. While he can seem intelligent, articulate and sensitive he can also appear stupid, brutish and petulant. His football, too, varies from the sublime to the bone idle.

Gregory, before he took over as manager at Villa, thought him "moody, distant, arrogant and not a good mixer", but Collymore, he said "is slowly proving me wrong. He has had a lot to put up with, much of it self-generated."

The derogatory chants from the West Ham fans referring to his assault on Ulrika Jonsson underlined both aspects of the argument. Gregory added: "We are getting something out of him but there is still a lot more. That is the hardest he's worked for me over 90 minutes, even at the end he was closing down defenders."

That Gregory should regard such a feature as worthy of praise says it all. With the game still in the balance closing down opponents should be as automatic for Collymore as it always is for the likes of Ian Wright. As the Villa manager added: "Hard work is now a prerequisite of Premiership football."

Collymore is a talent, his performances for Nottingham Forest proved that, but if he does not begin to realise his potential this season he may never do so. Now 27 he is playing for the club he followed as a boy, is able to commute easily from his beloved Stafford, and is supported by skilled and honest team-mates. Yet he is still insecure, he still needs to feel loved and appreciated before he will perform.

Paul Merson recently said he had taken it upon himself to bring the best from Collymore whom, he felt, was capable of being an England regular. "He needs confidence and that is the key," said Merson. "There is frustration within him, he is a football explosion waiting to happen."

Gregory, though, said: "Nobody can help Stan apart from himself. We can give him the platform, provide help and technical advice, but it is down to him. Some players do need more managing than others and he does sometimes feel sorry for himself. But, with the talent he has, no one else is going to feel sorry for him."

This view is in keeping with a policy of encouraging players to take responsibility off the pitch as well as on it. "We shouldn't have to run around waking them up at hotels telling them dinner's at seven and so on," said Gregory. "You know what they're like. Ugo missed the 11 o'clock walk this morning. He said `nobody rang me'. So what! It's like at the airport, if one of them decides to go to the toilet they all follow him."

Individual, as well as collective responsibility, is the mantra that has sustained Villa's early-season form. However, they are reaching the stage when something more will be required. The contenders are moving into position behind them with Manchester United reducing the gap in ominous fashion. While Villa have only conceded two goals, scoring them is more problematic. Apart from an Alan Thompson header shortly after the interval, which was well saved by Shaka Hislop, and an appalling miss by Merson when he allowed Hislop to palm away his underhit follow-up to Lee Hendrie's volley, Villa never looked like scoring on Saturday.

Gregory reiterated his belief that forwards win matches, defenders win championships, but unless Collymore either realises his potential, or is supplanted, Villa's lack of forward threat will stymie their challenge.

At present Collymore is playing too similar a role to Merson, both like to drop off for the ball and link the play, neither are playing at the sharp end and getting into the box. At one point, late on, Thompson broke down the left and delivered what transpired to be a hopeless ball into the box. It need not have been so, but no one had made a run. Had Villa had a genuine predator Thompson could have crossed with confidence instead of hope.

Since Merson is more suited to the deeper role, Collymore needs to get on the back of defenders more, using his pace and strength to unsettle them. If he does not, Gregory, who has been pursuing Chris Sutton for a month, will surely buy.

If he does it will almost certainly be an English player. On Saturday, Oakes, coming in for the injured Mark Bosnich, completed a full side of Englishmen. "It's semi-co-incidental and I'm proud of it," said Gregory. "I wish we had a Scotsman or two though. Most championship teams have done over the years."

Villa's last title-winning side, in 1981, included Des Bremner, Ken McNaught and Allan Evans but, added Gregory, "they don't seem as abundant as they used to be."

West Ham were more polygot but it was their young Englishmen, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, who caught the eye. The latter brought a fine save from Oakes just before the hour. The keeper had little else to do.

West Ham's own loose cannon, John Hartson, tested him after 10 minutes but was otherwise quiet, his game inhibited by the need to avoid further controversy. Like Collymore he has yet to find the mental platform to display his talent. It is an important season for them both.

West Ham United (3-5-2): Hislop; Pearce, Ferdinand, Ruddock (Impey, 73); Sinclair, Lomas, Berkovic, Lampard, Dicks; Wright (Kitson, 74), Hartson. Substitutes not used: Keller, Moncur, Forrest (gk).

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

Referee: P Alcock (Sevenoaks).

Bookings: Aston Villa: Collymore.

Man of the match: Ferdinand.

Attendance: 26,002.