Football: Dublin strikes to restore double act

Aston Villa 3 Tottenham Hotspur 2
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The Independent Online
STAN COLLYMORE, enthusing about his new partner's experience, characterised him as "long in the tooth". Alex Ferguson claims that, if he is long anywhere, it is not the dental department. Length is not everything, to paraphrase an old adage, but Aston Villa certainly appear better equipped to go the distance with the advent of Dion Dublin.

After watching Dublin score two debut goals in Villa's exciting victory over Tottenham, no less an authority than George Graham agreed that the Premiership leaders' pounds 5.75m recruit from Coventry made them more plausible contenders for Arsenal's crown.

Seven weeks earlier, when he was in charge of Leeds, Graham patronisingly called Villa "a nice little side". Top-six material, but not potential champions. In his curious new incarnation as Spurs' manager, he seemed prepared to reconsider his verdict.

"Who knows, with teams like Arsenal and Manchester United involved in Europe, maybe this is Villa's year," Graham reflected. Did anything he had seen affect the view he expressed at Elland Road? "They've got more firepower now."

Eighteen years ago, another 29-year-old centre-forward, from a similarly chequered footballing background, also chose Villa ahead of Leeds. Peter Withe was described by the then manager, Ron Saunders, as "the final piece in the jigsaw". He duly contributed 20 goals towards the title in 1981, and the one which secured the European Cup a year later.

John Gregory was careful last week to hail Dublin as "the missing piece in the jigsaw". The word "final" might have encouraged Doug Ellis to tighten the purse strings after an outlay of pounds 21m in six months, whereas the Villa manager is on record as wanting "one or two" more players.

Whether or not he acquires them, it is not hard to envisage Dublin emulating Withe's impact. He has the Liverpudlian's physical presence, aerial power, and knack of collecting "ordinary" goals. What is more, he has already achieved the considerable feat of linking effectively with Collymore.

Time will tell whether Stan the Man can play Gary Shaw to Dublin's Withe. He looked happier playing on the shoulder of the last defender, bursting on to the newcomer's headed flicks, than as the target man he tended to be in tandem with Bryan Roy, Robbie Fowler and Dwight Yorke.

According to their outstanding captain, Gareth Southgate, Dublin also epitomises the "hunger" within Villa's squad. "I looked around the squad in training on Friday and thought that everyone here has something to prove, either to a previous club or to themselves," he said.

Far from being chastened by elimination from the Worthington and Uefa Cups, Southgate sees that as a blessing. Never mind the likes of Gareth Barry, 17, and Lee Hendrie, 21, who might have found the schedule too draining, he was looking forward to a midweek rest between games.

Villa have now equalled the best start in their history, which was back in 1932 (when they eventually came in second). True, they have still not met any of their principal rivals. The next three visitors, however, are Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.

If they could reproduce their form of the opening hour against Spurs, Villa have nothing to fear. Graham's midfield was overrun, with Hendrie adding poise and pinpoint passing to a level of industry which could only be described as awesome.

Dublin's double was no more than Villa deserved. And when Collymore struck his first League goal since Gregory's opening game in February, Spurs looked ripe for a rout.

But Graham had switched to 3-5-2, and Spurs suddenly had width, as well as numbers in midfield. Villa's wing-backs were on the back foot, their defence vulnerable.

Darren Anderton, who had already shaken the bar, cut the arrears after David Ginola suckered Ugo Ehiogu into conceding a penalty. Ramon Vega's goal, following a typical Graham set-piece, made Villa endure an uneasy finale.

One was left with ambivalent feelings about their championship credentials. Manchester United would surely not have let a 3-0 lead become an exercise in brinkmanship at Old Trafford. But there was a positive side, on the other hand, which was a vitality about Villa's attacking play not previously evident.

Graham also completed his first capture before the match, signing Ipswich's Argentinian defender Mauricio Taricco (not to be confused, Mr Sugar, with Carlos Kickaball). There will be further comings and goings soon, the Scot having concluded that he has too few players who are as adept at winning the ball as they are in possession.

Spurs face a gruelling run-up to Christmas themselves, including Graham's return to Arsenal next weekend. Those who still cannot quite believe he has forsaken the cannon for the cockerel would have been amused to hear him lapse into referring to his new club as "they" rather than "we".

Goals: Dublin (31) 1-0; Dublin (35) 2-0; Collymore (48) 3-0; Anderton pen (65) 3-1; Vega (76) 3-2.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Taylor, Hendrie, Wright; Merson; Collymore, Dublin (Draper, 82). Substitutes not used: Thompson, Grayson, Joachim, Rachel (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-3-2-1): Baardsen; Carr, Scales, Campbell, Edinburgh (Vega, h-t); Anderton, Nielsen, Clemence (Allen 82); Fox (Sinton, h-t), Ginola; Iversen. Substitutes not used: Dominguez, Walker (gk).

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

Bookings: Villa: Dublin, Ehiogu, Taylor. Tottenham: Ginola.

Man of the match: Southgate.

Attendance: 39,241.