Football: Collymore is Gregory's pearl

Aston Villa 2 Collymore 10, 65 Liverpool 1 Owen pen 6 Attendance: 39,372
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The Independent Online
ALL THAT John Gregory could have hoped for at Villa Park yesterday was that the team of under-achievers he had inherited only a few days before would suddenly live down their reputation for indolence and indifference to responsibility. Inspired by the often-criticised former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore, who scored twice, they did much more than that. Liverpool's manager Roy Evans conceded later that "from now on we are playing for second place - a place in Europe''.

While Evans complained that "on another day Mr Poll would have sent off three Villa players" - including Collymore who, he said, "was allowed to do whatever he liked" - Gregory was far too delighted with the result to involve himself in controversy. "That's the easy bit over," he said afterwards. "Everyone was fired up but that always happens when a new manager comes in - teams find passion and spirit. Now I've got to make it happen every week."

He explained Collymore's outstanding display by saying: "He had 40,000 enemies when he went to play at Anfield. Here he had 40,000 friends and they were delighted for him. I will judge him by today's performance but on that he's a snip at pounds 7 million.''

Gregory is the sort of guy who believes that the best rewards come to those who work hard and wait. He waited until he was 29 before winning the first of his six England caps, no one ever tried harder for so long to represent his country, and no one at Villa, least of all Collymore, is going to get far by trying to deceive him about commitment.

Although he said a call from his predecessor Brian Little had convinced him he could start successfully, yesterday was not the ideal time. It was not so much Villa's dangerous position in the Premiership, or the fact that on Tuesday they face Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Cup but that Liverpool, now without Robbie Fowler, could not afford defeat after Manchester United had earlier extended their championship lead.

Gregory had hardly finished posing for more photographers than he would have seen at Wycombe in a season when his new team gave away a fifth-minute penalty. Steve McManaman had threaded the ball into the area for Oyvind Leonhardsen to pursue. Mark Bosnich feared the consequences and brought him down, leaving Michael Owen to place in the penalty. Bosnich escaped with a caution, another cause of Evans' complaints.

This was no day for Villa to dwell on self-inflicted injury. Within a minute Julian Joachim headed a shade over the bar and Liverpool's American goalkeeper Brad Friedel, making his debut in place of David James, found himself deep in the cut and thrust. He had nothing for which to reproach himself when, after nine minutes the ball crossed and recrossed the penalty area before it clipped McManaman's heel and deflected to Collymore whose equalising shot sped inside the post.

Collymore's attitude was that of a player perhaps maligned beyond fairness. But if he was forcing attention, Liverpool's tenacious David Thompson, making his first full appearance, was drawing praise for his confidence while Owen lifted his team's hopes every time he had possession. His most rousing first-half shot was importantly pushed on to the bar by Bosnich. Collymore responded, easing a superb through-pass to Joachim who Friedel blocked bravely. It said everything for Villa's new spirit that they matched Liverpool attack for attack.

For the depth of their effort alone they were worthy of taking the lead in the 65th minute. Dwight Yorke's persistence had been useful throughout but his pass through the middle to Ian Taylor was invaluable. Taylor ran on and his shot hit the base of the post, returning, almost inevitably, to Collymore who comfortably placed in his second goal.

Slightly on the downside of Collymore's fine performance was that, after a yellow card in the first half, his enthusiasm and probably the adrenaline of the occasion led him into several further scrapes. Eventually, Gregory decided it was wise to substitute him. He went off to a huge ovation - if it sounded like music in his ears, it must have been a symphony for Gregory.

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