FOOTBALL COMMENTARY: Villa are history men in the making

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I t would be an impressive record, if it were not for having to wipe away the cobwebs to read it. Seven times winners, a feat surpassed only by Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. But it is 39 years since Aston Villa last won the FA Cup, and that is their only victory since 1920. There has been a League championship since, a quartet of League Cups, even a European Cup, but the most glamourous trophy of all has long since forgotten the route to Villa Park.

Perhaps it is the memory of a previous FA Cup, the original, being stolen while in Villa's care in 1895. Whatever, the club are now one match away from their first semi-final for 36 years. Moreover, they should go into next month's quarter-final glowing with confidence. Saturday's 3-1 defeat of First Division Ipswich Town was even more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests. The game, against useful opponents, was won inside 20 minutes.

Villa, as Arsenal found last Wednesday, and George Burley, the Ipswich manager, said on Saturday, are the country's in-form team. Their progress under Brian Little is testament to the virtues of organisation, allied to a clear vision and confidence.

Little arrived at Villa Park in controversial circumstances, Villa having effectively induced him to leave Leicester. However, even Leicester fans accepted that Little had an emotional attachment to Villa (unlike Mark McGhee to Wolves). It is clear that Little regards Villa not as a stepping stone, but as a destination in itself.

Since taking over last November he has completely reshaped the side. Half of Saturday's squad has been signed by him, others, such as Dwight Yorke, have flourished under his tutelage.

"We have a lot of quality," Little said. "Last season, people may have thought we did not have the right pieces to fit the jigsaw but staying up gave us the chance to work on things.

"The good thing is that the players like the training ground. We had a long, hot summer and we spent a lot of time there, working on situations, new formations."

For all the summer preparation confidence, last August, would have been fragile. While there is much to be said for the theory that relegation battles develop "character" they also weaken belief. Villa would have gone into the first game of the season, at home to Manchester United, with a great deal of trepidation. Forty-five minutes later they were 3- 0 up and, though United improved, Villa won and were on their way.

Villa began that match with the system they finished Saturday's: three central defenders, a solid five across the middle, and two strikers. This was because of the departure of Tommy Johnson, who forced his way into the team in the autumn and floats ahead of a midfield four. Johnson pulled a thigh muscle and could be out for three weeks. He will be missed. He has given the side a spark and, without him, Villa have fewer attacking options, although they are correspondingly stronger in defence. That defence is the key, as it is for most successful sides. Middlesbrough's slide this year owes much to a series of injuries, especially to a once- impregnable defence.

The Middlesbrough situation, and Blackburn's early struggles, underline the importance of staying clear of injury to such mid-sized clubs - a group which, at present, would still include Villa. The 13 who played on Saturday have comprised the side for most of the season. It recalls Villa's title success in 1981, when they used barely 14 players.

The current team are not yet a championship force which, Little added, "is why the cups are so important". At present they are advancing in both competitions; on Wednesday they play the second leg of their Coca-Cola Cup semi-final with Arsenal.

With that in mind, Saturday's stroll was welcome. "We wanted to start the game quickly," Little said, and they did. The influential Mark Draper scored the first, a stunning, swerving 25-yard shot. He then provided the corner for the second: Yorke headed it in for his seventh goal in four games.

When Ian Taylor added a third with a delicate glancing header from Steve Staunton's cross, Ipswich were left with just pride to play for. They persevered, with Simon Milton covering every grain of sand on the gluepot pitch, and deserved Paul Mason's well-taken consolation. However, by then, Wembley was gone and thoughts had become parochial: "We're still a point ahead with three games in hand on Norwich."

Old hands recognised something in Villa's passing game of Bobby Robson's Ipswich, the one which won an FA Cup and a European trophy. It will be interesting to see how Villa fare in Europe next season; they seem sure to get there. Like Chelsea, they place a continental emphasis on the importance of retaining possession.

Such values can only help their prospective England quartet of Gareth Southgate, Alan Wright, Draper and Ugo Ehiogu. Terry Venables, the England coach, watched them at Highbury. Ted Buxton, his scout, was at Portman Road. All are promising, while not quite the finished article.

The same reservation could be applied to Villa's quixotic centre-forward, Savo Milosevic. Time and again he dribbled through the Ipswich defence, shrugging away challenges like a cartoon hero throwing off the baddies, only to miss continually.

"The lads are joking with him," Little said. "He is trying that hard to score. They reckon he will end up scoring the most important goal of the season." Perhaps he will, at Wembley in May.

Goals: Draper (10) 0-1; Yorke (19) 0-2; Taylor (53) 0-3; Mason (83) 1-3.

Ipswich Town (3-5-2) Wright; Thomsen, Mowbray, Sedgley; Stockwell (Uhlenbeek, 76), Milton, Wiliams, Mason, Taricco; Marshall, Scowcroft. Substitutes not used: Gregory, Vaughan.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton; Charles, Draper (McGrath, 77), Townsend, Wright; Johnson (Taylor, 13); Yorke, Milosevic. Substitute not used: Oakes (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley). Bookings: Ipswich: Scowcroft.

Man of the match: Townsend. Attendance: 20,748.