Football: Gregory faced by Dublin dilemma

Aston Villa 1 Coventry City 4
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THIS WAS a match of important consequences for both sides but also, perhaps, for bus drivers in Coventry, who may be less at risk from angry red-haired football managers as they go about their business this morning.

Gordon Strachan is an excitable chap at the best of times and one can only assume it was the frustration of seeing his team slide into the bottom three that caused him to halt and then board one such vehicle as he drove home from work last week. Apparently he was upset by two schoolboys aiming abusive gestures at him from the back seat and decided, not unreasonably, that they deserved a ticking off. Even by Strachan's standards, it was an extraordinary episode.

There should be none of that today following Coventry's first League win at Villa Park in 63 years of trying. It might be as well, however, to give a wide berth to John Gregory, who may not be in the best of tempers on the journey to Villa's training ground, ready to confront his team today about a performance he described as the worst he had been involved with, as manager or player.

Villa, who led the Premiership for almost three months before Christmas, have surrendered any realistic chance of the title by losing form just as key rivals are finding theirs. With Arsenal slipping into higher gear, Manchester United pressing relentlessly forward and even Chelsea staying with the pace, Gregory's team could not have chosen a worse moment to win only one point in five matches.

"For us to win the title now would mean the other three all suffering the kind of run we've just gone through," Gregory said. "Somehow I can't see that happening."

Villa's slump is a new experience for their young manager, whose record until now had suggested something of a Midas touch. The troubles with Stan Collymore and Paul Merson pulled the rug from under that perception and now there is the new problem of Dion Dublin, who needs an operation on a groin injury. Currently he is a poor imitation of the striker who scored eight goals in six matches following his pounds 5.75m move from Coventry in November.

His penalty on Saturday - awarded harshly against Richard Shaw after Coventry's more obvious claims against Riccardo Scimeca had been turned down - ended an 11-week goal drought but otherwise Dublin was a virtual passenger.

"That's what management is about, being ready for these sort of situations, and I haven't dealt with them very well so far," Gregory said, self-effacingly. He had, though, seen the hard times coming.

"In a way I knew it couldn't last," he admitted. "We were always at our maximum every week, for the first four or five months of the season. Everyone was really on top of his game, playing to his limits, but that is not happening now. There are too many below par performances at one time."

Coventry, meanwhile, have been playing well but with little luck, winning only twice in 13 matches and watching their hopes of a Uefa Cup place give way to the fear of relegation. At last here, save for the penalty they should have had, everything went right.

John Aloisi, obliged to wait for his chance after Strachan plumped for Noel Whelan and Darren Huckerby as his post-Dublin front two, seized it with both hands, twice getting in place to capitalise on Stephen Froggatt's good service. George Boateng, Coventry's dynamic and intelligent Dutch midfielder, matched his team-mate's feat by scoring twice also.

"I've been frustrated not for me but for the players," Strachan said. "It is hard to keep telling them the breaks will come. They were brave, mentally and physically, today."

With that, and a grin, he was off. Road rage counselling can be delayed a while yet, after all.

Goals: Aloisi (25) 0-1; Boateng (51) 0-2; Dublin pen (55) 1-2; Aloisi (73) 1-3; Boateng (84) 1-4.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Oakes; Watson (Barry, 44), Scimeca, Southgate, Wright; Merson, Grayson, Taylor (Draper, 29, Collymore, 55), Hendrie; Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Samuel, Bosnich (gk).

Coventry City (4-4-2): Hedman; Nilsson, Williams, Shaw, Burrows; Boateng, McAllister, Telfer, Froggatt; Huckerby (McSheffrey, 90), Aloisi. Substitutes not used: Konjic, Soltvedt, Edworthy, Kirkland.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Bookings: Aston Villa: Grayson, Hendrie, Southgate, Dublin. Coventry City: Williams, Aloisi.

Man of the match: Aloisi.

Attendance: 38,799.