Football: Ferguson fuels fire under Gregory

Aston Villa 0 Newcastle United 1 Ferguson 65 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 34,531
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The Independent Online
JOHN GREGORY must have known it was not going to be his day when he woke to a vote of confidence from his chairman. By tea-time, he was sure of it. His Aston Villa side had most of the game, created the bulk of the limited number of chances, yet still came away from Villa Park with nothing. To add to his mounting woes, the goal that brought Newcastle their first away win since April, one manager and seven months ago, was scored by Duncan Ferguson, who has spent most of the past year on the physio's couch.

No one could question Villa's commitment and but for a brilliant flying save by Steve Harper from Benito Carbone's close-range header in the dying moments, they would have gained a point from all their noble efforts. But the beatific smile on the face of Bobby Robson at the final whistle told of a well-drilled snatch and grab. In Newcastle's plight, he will take anything he can get.

As his Villa players had also come out in support of their beleaguered manager in exclusive columns during the week, Gregory would be forgiven for turning instantly to the "jobs vacant" page. Interpretations of the 4-0 victory over Southampton in midweek varied: tales of Villa's return to winning ways being tempered by the hint of a flattering scoreline. But Gregory will take any succour on offer after a dismal last two months.

Compare and contrast with the opening day of the season and a rare victory at St James' Park, which started Ruud Gullit's road to Premiership oblivion and prompted a promising start to the season for Villa. It was not just the cold snap which made early August seem a lifetime ago. Gregory has been feeling the chill. Steve Watson was denied the chance of playing against his former club by a hamstring injury, his place being taken by Mark Delaney, who made such an impression earlier in the season. Carbone started on the bench and Shearer was passed fit after a midweek bout of tonsilitis.

With both teams adopting the same 3-5-2 formation, the game was always going to be a matter of individual battles. Villa, their confidence revitalised, began to reveal some of their long lost fluency, despite the early loss of Lee Hendrie with a damaged ankle after a tackle by Ketsbaia and rain squalls driving down the ground, which must have made Cristovao Helder, the substantially built Newcastle defender, born in Angola, bred in Portugal, feel a very long way from whichever home he nominated. Alessandro Pistone's 40th-minute booking for time wasting was circumstantial evidence of Newcastle's apparent intentions.

Robert Lee blocked a drive by Alan Thompson, Hendrie's replacement, and Delaney's long-range right-foot shot was parried and then gathered safely by Harper. Sadly for Villa, their best chance fell to Colin Calderwood, who stuck out a boot when a shot by Alan Wright landed at his feet five yards out. The ball ballooned over the bar. But the combative George Boateng was the most influential figure in the midfield and Newcastle also struggled to find any sort of rhythm down the flanks, through either Nolberto Solano, who was ably cancelled out by Wright, or the surging runs of Pistone down the left. Had Villa been more precise with their final pass, they might have had more to show for their evident first-half superiority.

The arrival of little Carbone five minutes into the second half, in place of Dublin, promised to up the entertainment quota, which was not hard. Newcastle's substitution, Ferguson for Silvio Maric, proved more influential as the forgotten man of Newcastle launched himself at Ketsbaia's tantalising cross to head home from close range. It was Ferguson's first Premiership goal for 372 days. and rather more than Newcastle deserved. Boateng's lob flew inches over as Villa pressed for an equaliser and Carbone was at the hub of most of Villa's more coherent moves. One final free-kick, deep into injury time, brought a last glimpse of salvation, but Carbone's shot hit the Newcastle wall.

Gregory's six-match banishment from the touchline, courtesy of the FA, begins soon. It is up to Deadly Doug Ellis, after that, whether he is allowed back.