Football: Gregory douses the fire

Aston Villa 0 Southampton 1 Richards 84 Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 26,474
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The Independent Online
NOT A happy bonfire weekend for Aston Villa. Performing like a damp box of fireworks, they sparked intermittently, entertained fitfully and left their audience with a profound sense of empty anti-climax. The claret-and-blue touchpaper just would not light.

Judging by the response of the Holte End, Guy Fawkes may have had a relatively easy time of it around Birmingham's back gardens last night. John Gregory was the replacement fall-guy. For his decision to withdraw Paul Merson (one of few firing rockets in Villa's colours) 10 minutes from the end, the Villa manager was met by a chorus of "You don't know what you're doing". One could only guess what kind of impact on his long-term job security will have been made by Dean Richards' late winning goal.

Calm, rational and positively warm towards his post-match inquisitors, Gregory, of course, claimed that he did know precisely what he was doing. Merson, he explained, had come off because he had nothing left and, of the crowd reaction, Gregory shrugged: "We've had boos before now; this is no different. If you pay to come in, you're allowed to boo."

Perhaps, though, Gregory's greatest concern should be the legendary impatience of his chairman, Doug Ellis. As the manager acknowledged: "He wasn't happy when Villa were 15th in the Premiership two years ago; he wasn't happy when we slipped out of the top three and missed out on Europe last season. After all, he's a football fan and he wants the best for this club." Gregory admitted to being "alarmed". Well might he be after a sixth straight Premiership game without winning.

By way of response to that downward spiral - and with Ian Taylor suspended - Gregory shuffled his pack, re-introducing Alan Wright at left-back and partnering Gareth Barry with Merson in central midfield. Steve Stone was given his first start of the season on the right.

The majority of those alterations appeared to be working quite smoothly. Barry, bullish and industrious, had a couple of worthwhile cracks at goal; Merson was an expert prompter of the delightfully light-footed Benito Carbone and an inventive source in his own right; Stone gave Patrick Colleter, on the left side of Southampton's defence, a torrid early spell. Indeed, Villa were closest to gathering a first-half lead when Alan Thompson fizzed a left-footed free-kick against the underside of the crossbar.

However, on an afternoon whose blustery wind implied that there would be an abundance of errors, Southampton were rarely far from their next glimpse of goal and the suspicion grew that the Saints could nick it. Nonetheless, Carbone remained the obvious potential match-winner. His instinctive half-volleyed response when Merson had a shot charged down was sufficiently close to bring forth a roar of approval from the home supporters; and he required a fine, arching save from Paul Jones as the game dragged into its final quarter.

Throughout, though, the visitors remained steadfast in defence and, ultimately, it was one of their unsung back line who put his name up in lights. Richards, having lumbered upfield for another late corner, anticipated intelligently as Hassan Kachloul's kick received a near-post flick. His thrusting forehead won the game.