Football: Hard times for honest John

`Management is all about knowing how to cope and I've not done that very well'; Tim Collings examines the reasons for Villa's sharp decline
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The Independent Online
SIX MONTHS ago, he was a popular choice to succeed Glenn Hoddle as the next England manager. His team were top of the Premiership, the first XI were all men of St George and he talked straight sense. John Gregory's style of management at Aston Villa was in vogue and, briefly, he was the media's darling. Then along came Kevin Keegan.

Not only did Fulham's Chief Operating Officer lead his promotion-chasing Londoners to a sensational victory at Villa Park in the FA Cup in January, he also bypassed Gregory on the highway to Lancaster Gate in the aftermath of Hoddle's downfall. It was no contest. And, as a result, while Keegan this week prepared England for their Polish confrontation, Gregory kept his head down. No exclusive interviews, thank you. It was an understandable position to take.

Hit by injuries, thrashed at home by Chelsea last Sunday, struggling to revive any semblance of the form which lifted them to the heady heights last autumn, missing the authority of Ugo Ehiogu in central defence and besieged by a crisis of confidence sparked by Stan Collymore's stress, Gregory's team have stumbled from one disappointment to the next. To his credit, however, the former Wycombe manager has taken it on the chin, this week admitting that it has been his naivety, as much as anything, which has allowed the Villans to lose their momentum.

"I didn't make the right signings at the right time and didn't see what lay ahead," he confessed. "When everyone was flying, I was not looking to bring people in. But when we struggled, we didn't have enough bodies. I did not anticipate things well, did I?"

Gregory is a bluntly honest man. So honest, in fact, that it is both a strength and a weakness of his management. He is a rousing, inspiring motivator, but less sophisticated in the finer arts of man-management and by wearing his heart on his sleeve, as plainly as the metaphorical stripes of the parade ground, he allows too many observers, from within and without Villa Park, to see inside.

A month ago, when he completed his first roller-coaster 12 months in charge of Aston Villa, he had to swallow some bitter truths after seeing Coventry claim their first away League win over Villa in their history.

The freshness of his approach, the very honesty which had been his most positive asset during the successful climax to the 1997-98 season, now set him difficult questions. To talk or not? He talked.

"Dion [Dublin] is a shadow of the guy who joined us last November," he said. "We are suffering a bit. Today, we were well and truly turned over... But management is all about knowing how to cope and I've not done that very well, have I?"

Such admissions are not best aired in public, particularly by a bubbly character whose previous statements had all been synonymous with success. His players, looking for guidance and security, saw a man conceding the initiative, as many around Birmingham's sleeping giant of a club also noted. New players did not arrive (until Steve Stone three weeks ago and Colin Calderwood this week), Collymore's sideshow cast an ever-lengthening shadow and the lack of any transfer success in Europe turned from a signal of patriotic pride bordering on xenophobia into a potential sign of weakness. Did Gregory lack the contacts and knowledge - manifested so obviously by Alex Ferguson, Gianluca Vialli and Arsene Wenger, whose teams rose inexorably beyond Villa in the League - which could have turned the tide?

One source close to the club suggested that Gregory relied too much on one agent in his transfer dealings and that this, coupled with the crowd's enduring identification with the troubled Brummie boy and broken- family victim Collymore, a love-affair rooted in sociology more than football, froze him when he needed to be hot and active as the first signs of difficulty emerged after Christmas. The positive vibes he focused on whipping up the form that helped Villa take 27 points from 33 following his arrival last February were needed; not a neutral, frustrated or negative stance. Gregory's banishment of his troubled shooter this week has come too late to save their Champions' League ambitions.

"He's a black and white sort of man, he's a great motivator, but not always so outstanding as a man manager," was another view. "He's not a Fergie or a Graham, for example. He doesn't know how people tick in quite the same way. But he has other great qualities and he is very deeply disappointed at the way this season has turned out."

Such feelings for Gregory are common around Birmingham where Villa's fans are desperate to see him, as a former player, establish the club among the super-elite at the summit of the English game. Even "deadly" Doug Ellis, the Aston Villa chairman with a reputation for losing his patience quickly, is understood to want to stand by his man this time.

For Gregory, however, the question is how much time has he got?