Bristol Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
MALCOLM Allison has been out of the limelight so long that the Villa Park fog in which Rovers deservedly held the Premier League championship challengers might have been the mists of time.
Now 65 and acting chief coach to the side 19th in the First Division - 'caretaker manager' would never do - Allison claims he can no longer afford the cigars and champers that were supposedly ever-present props during his prime with Manchester City and Crystal Palace. But he can still send out a well-prepared team and, as a bravura post-match performance proved, he retains a winning way with one-liners.
How would he be celebrating? 'I'm getting the train to Darlington,' Allison replied, deadpan (he stayed in the North-east after managing Middlesbrough). Why had he shaken hands with a steward but not Ron Atkinson? 'I've been looking for him but he keeps running away,' he said, pretending to search under the table and adding with characteristic cockiness: 'He did well to earn a draw with that team.'
The Villa manager was unsurprisingly less inclined to play up to his own flamboyant image, or to fuel the phony Battle of the Bigs. In private Atkinson may use Allison's jibes to motivate his men; for public consumption he was ignoring them. 'We've left ourselves with a very uncomfortable replay,' he said. 'They'll take the plaudits because of their status, but we let them off the hook.'
It was a highly partial yet plausible assessment. Dean Saunders fluffed a 55th-minute penalty which would have put Villa 2-0 up, and also sent a six-yard sitter against the woodwork in the dying minutes. Poetic justice, the big away following believed, Saunders having used a sly elbow on Rovers' Ian Alexander when playing for Liverpool last season.
Atkinson regarded Gavin Kelly's spot-kick save as 'the turning point'. However, the phrase might equally have been applied to the first minute, when the keeper handled outside his area in circumstances similar to those which led to Neville Southall's recent dismissal. Kelly was punished only by a free-kick.
After their reprieve Rovers repeatedly pushed back the hosts, without any obvious tactical innovations of the kind for which Allison is renowned, and Atkinson headed down to the dug-out after only 15 minutes. Even when Neil Cox volleyed Villa ahead - following what Jo Venglos, who signed him what seems an eternity ago from Scunthorpe, would unfailingly call 'good combinations' - the underdogs oozed confidence.
It grew visibly when Kelly, a free-transfer recruit from Hull, parried the pounds 2.3m Saunders's weak penalty. And it seemed to soar when the trench-coated Allison, blowing a kiss to booing home fans, then made his way to the bench. Very soon Marcus Browning, loaned to Hereford under Rovers' last manager but labelled 'a potential England player' by his new mentor, drove forward in a passable impersonation of Colin Bell to equalise.
The power of charisma or mere coincidence? An old stager's final fling or a new dawn for Rovers? The cramped confines of Twerton Park, where Big Mal and Big Ron were Southern League rivals three decades ago as manager and captain respectively of Bath and Oxford, will provide the answers a week on Wednesday.
Goals: Cox (38) 1-0; Browning (73) 1-1.
Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton (Cox, 17), Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, D Saunders, Yorke (Regis, 79), Froggatt.
Bristol Rovers: Kelly; Alexander, Tillson, Yates, Hardyman, Evans, Browning, Stewart (Mehew, 67), Taylor, C Saunders, Waddock. Substitute not used: Twentyman.
Referee: R Nixon (W Kirby, Wirral).