Football: Everton may rue stop-gap choice

Aston Villa 3 Everton 1
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Aston Villa 3 Everton 1

Once upon a time, faced with the loss of a manager at a critical moment, a club such as Everton would have wasted no time in hiring a replacement, the premise being that a ship in troubled waters needs a steady hand at the wheel.

The essential requirement, it was argued, was that everyone should know where they stood, or at least whom they should try to impress. Caretaker managers were strictly short term.

Oddly, this seems no longer to be the fashion. Following the lead of Blackburn and Nottingham Forest, Everton have evidently decided stability can wait. Thus they have placed Dave Watson, their stalwart centre-back, in charge until the end of the season, keeping the seat warm for person or persons unknown.

No one is more committed to Everton than Watson and yet it is still a risky appointment, prolonging the kind of uncertainty in which few players thrive. Look at Blackburn. Who can be sure of his future until Roy Hodgson takes control? And who can feel settled at Forest, where no one seems to know whether Stuart Pearce or Dave Bassett is in charge?

Blackburn are better off than Forest but neither is guaranteed safety. Nor are Everton, who have entrusted their survival to players who, come the summer, may find themselves surplus to requirements.

Watson took his insecure crew to Villa on Saturday convinced that all was well. He left only too aware that it is not.

"I was disappointed with what happened once Villa scored their second," he said. "We gave the ball away too much and didn't battle. One or two heads dropped, and that is something that has to be put right.

"It was bad enough that we gave away an equaliser just before half-time, but what was worse was that when they scored their second goal we just didn't react. There was no fight."

It was a rude coming down to earth for the 35-year-old captain, who had seen his side start with great purpose. Even before David Unsworth gave them an early lead, they had forced two fine saves from Michael Oakes in Villa's goal.

Their revitalised spirits were short-lived, however. Savo Milosevic headed Villa level just before half-time and Steve Staunton fired them in front just after, beating the defensive wall with a wonderfully curled free- kick.

Within four minutes of Villa's second, Everton let their concentration slip as Ugo Ehiogu met Gareth Farrelly's cross, leaving not just Milosevic but Dwight Yorke unmarked in front of goal. Yorke, despite miskicking, did the necessary and effectively ensured Villa's three points.

Their manager, Brian Little, was less impressed than one might have imagined, acknowledging that the opposition had looked dispirited. The result makes Villa's qualification for Europe all the more likely but, with an eye on two upcoming away matches - at Wimbledon and Derby - Little was cautious.

Goal: Unsworth (14) 0-1; Milosevic (41) 1-1; Staunton (50) 2-1; Yorke (54) 3-1.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Oakes; Nelson, Ehiogu, Staunton (Hughes, 56), Southgate, Wright; Taylor (Curcic, 81), Farrelly, Draper; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Murray, Rachel (gk).

Everton (5-3-2): Southall; Hottiger, Short, Watson, Unsworth (Dunne, 60), Phelan; Thomsen, Parkinson, Speed; Stuart, (Branch, 54), Ferguson. Substitutes not used: Ball, Hills, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Bookings: Everton: Watson, Short.

Man of the match: Oakes.

Attendance: 39,339.