Football: Gregory plays great catalyst

Phil Shaw sees Villa's new order seize the reins with both hands in Madrid
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The Independent Online
AS AN example of the mercurial existence led by the modern manager, John Gregory's first week with Aston Villa was close to definitive. One Tuesday night he was with Wycombe Wanderers at the rugby ground rented by Bristol Rovers. The next he was 30,000 feet over the Pyrenees, leading Villa's retreat with honour from Atletico Madrid.

With the in-flight television showing One Foot in the Grave, Gregory may have been tempted to utter, in more positive tones than is customary, the show's catchphrase: "I don't believe it." For while the man across the aisle, the Villa chairman Doug Ellis, makes a more obvious Victor Meldrew than Gregory (who plays guitar and has Bruce Springsteen on his answerphone message), there was an unreal feel to the whole scenario.

Suddenly, "John Who?" finds himself in charge of a side who arguably have one foot in the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup. Atletico lead only 1- 0 after the first leg of their quarter-final, from a penalty at that, and Villa created enough chances to have secured a precious away goal and more.

The relentlessly attritional nature of football at the highest level allows participants scant opportunity for projecting ahead, even if they were prepared to provoke fate by doing so. Before Gregory can concentrate fully on vanquishing the Spaniards, Villa face three vital battles on the home front.

Ahead of Villa Park six- pointers against two of the Premiership's bottom three, Barnsley and Crystal Palace, comes today's visit to Chelsea. The match pits Gregory against Gianluca Vialli, a comparative veteran of senior management with a fortnight's more experience.

At first glance there are few similarities between Gregory and Vialli. Ellis plucked Villa's replacement for Brian Little from the nether regions of the Second Division, whereas Ken Bates promoted Chelsea's most high- profile Italian to succeed Ruud Gullit. Yet in both cases, continuity was the watchword.

"People go on about my coming from Wycombe," Gregory said, "but they overlook the fact that I was with Villa [as coach under Little] until 16 months ago.

"I've been very pleased with the players in my two games so far, but I already knew they were talented as individuals and as a team. For one reason or another they've been underachievers this season. However, in the two years before that, they came in the top five. It's just a matter of recreating what we had."

Tackling Spain's third-best team in the bull-ring atmosphere of the Vicente Calderon Stadium was not, therefore, quite the journey into the unknown that some painted it. For all that, a heavy defeat - which looked possible as Atletico created a flurry of early chances - would have undermined the instant kudos Gregory gained in the initial victory over Liverpool.

His response to adversity at half-time, when Villa might have been in turmoil after falling behind to Christian Vieri's penalty, revealed an organisational prowess that belied his professed indifference to tactics. Gregory identified the source of the problems and made the requisite changes. The result was like a before-and-after advert.

"The three boys in midfield were on top of each other and consequently we were getting exposed down our right-hand side," he explained. "I just got them to play more zonally and I was delighted with our improvement in the second half. If we'd played like that from the start we'd have won it."

Gregory's role in transforming Villa's performance was acknowledged by his captain, Gareth Southgate. "At half-time he said, 'Let's try to hold on to the ball more,' and told us that if we were in trouble to start building again from the back." The England defender, steeped in the importance of retaining possession in Europe, continued: "We kept it far better after that and our pace up front worried them. Towards the end they were happy to hang on to 1-0."

Steve Harrison, Villa's coach under Graham Taylor, took up his duties as the new No 2 on the trip. He quickly made his presence felt, not least with his legendary humour. "There were things Steve was able to help with during the game," Gregory explained, "but it was really a question of his getting bedded in. At training on Monday night he had the boys in agony they were laughing so much."

The same venue, 24 hours later, was heaving with 45,000 fanatics. The sights and sounds, said Gregory, "drove home to me why I couldn't turn this job down". Those with a historical bent have noted that when Villa last replaced a big-name incumbent with a "backroom" man before Europe's quarter- final stage - Tony Barton taking over after Ron Saunders' abrupt resignation - they went on to win the Champions' Cup of 1982.

One of Gregory's enduring regrets is that he missed out on that triumph, having left after being offered "a few pennies" to join Brighton. Like the ball he grabbed in the heat of Tuesday's match, and instinctively shaped to throw back into play, the opportunity to make amends is being seized with both hands.

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