Football: Gregory points to strength in depth

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JUST WHEN it seemed to their followers that things could hardly get any better, Aston Villa achieved arguably their most outstanding victory on foreign soil since Peter Withe's memorably messy goal won the European Cup against Bayern Munich 17 years earlier.

By recreating the 1-0 scoreline from that heady night in Rotterdam against a Celta Vigo side lying joint third in Spain's Primera Liga, Villa's all- English line-up did more than establish a platform for progress in the Uefa Cup and stretch an unbeaten start to 12 matches.

Villa's ninth win of the season - and 18th in John Gregory's 25-match reign - also confirmed their status as realistic contenders for honours both abroad and at home. Many pundits appear to believe they are merely keeping the Premiership's hot seat warm until Arsenal, Manchester United or even Chelsea move in.

Not that their ebullient manager bears any resentment over the relative lack of recognition for Villa. When Gregory noted yesterday that "quite a few people will have taken notice of this result", it appeared he was about to demand some overdue respect.

Far from it: among the people to whom he was referring, Gregory explained, were Paul Merson, Ian Taylor and Alan Thompson. Each was unavailable for Tuesday's first leg of the second-round tie, and the implication was that none could take his place for granted after fine displays by their deputies.

Gregory was not only unconcerned that not everyone appears to take Villa seriously as championship challengers, but claimed to "fully understand" the reservations. "We've done nothing yet," he said, acknowledging that silverware tends not to be won in the autumn and recalling how Newcastle lost a big lead in Kevin Keegan's last full season.

Villa may lack the attacking flair with which St James' Park was synonymous. By the same token, however, Newcastle never developed the defensive solidity on which Gregory is convinced title campaigns stand or fall.

In the absence of the another mainstay, Mark Bosnich, Michael Oakes kept Villa's ninth clean sheet so far. Although they came under heavy pressure it was striking how few saves Oakes had to make before two agile stops late on.

Julian Joachim, Merson's stand-in, secured the early advantage with a major assist from the rehabilitated striker Gregory calls "Stanley Victor" (aka Collymore). Mark Draper was industry personified in Thompson's role, while Riccardo Scimeca, nominally a centre-back, covered and tackled assiduously as Taylor's replacement.

"It's been said that we haven't got enough strength in depth, and we need to bring people in, but we seemed to do OK in Spain," Gregory said. "I looked at my substitutes' bench at West Ham last Saturday and thought: `I've got some good 'uns here waiting to come in'. You like to have a seamless transition when you lose one player and bring another in."

There can be a problem, of course, in keeping fringe players contented and motivated. "They're not themselves when they're not involved," he admitted, "and they might not put up with it if they thought it was for the whole season."

So how good are Villa and how far can they go? "If we maintain what we're doing, there's nothing to stand in our way," argued the relentlessly positive Gregory. "You can achieve anything in life if you want it badly enough and are prepared to sacrifice everything rather than just play at it. We have to give it our all for 10 months."