Football: Hodgson's sharp reminder of home truths

Aston Villa 2 Darlington 1

DAVID HODGSON played the riled card after John Gregory claimed that the slender margin of Aston Villa's victory had flattered his so- called "lucky losers" from the Third Division.

The Darlington manager, whose side were allowed back into the FA Cup as a wild-card entry because of Manchester United's withdrawal, reacted tetchily when told his Premiership counterpart believed Villa should have won 5-1.

"Good luck to Mr Gregory, I'm delighted for him," Hodgson said, his sarcasm barely disguising a contempt reputedly stemming from their playing days. "Perhaps that's why Villa are where they are in the table. Maybe he should ask their fans what they think. There were only 18,000 of them here. That should tell him something."

Whatever his agenda, Hodgson had a point about the crowd of just 22,000, to which Darlington contributed around 5,000 followers as well as some desperately needed atmosphere. Although Villa had slashed admission prices to pounds 10 and pounds 5, large numbers of their supporters again stayed away.

Villa Park attendances may not simply be a protest against poor results but part of a broader trend. Having priced out the working-class spectators who populated the old, traditional terraces - like the Holte End, which had swathes of empty blue seats on Saturday - clubs who fail to deliver on the pitch appear unable to count on the loyalty of the mobile-phone brigade who literally took their places.

Plummeting receipts, for whatever reason, are another factor for Doug Ellis to consider in evaluating Gregory's position. Sacking him would be costly, because a new incumbent invariably wants to buy players. Against that, the chairman must decide how far the season can be allowed to drift before he acts.

The next six days, in which Villa face a likely West Ham backlash in the Worthington Cup before receiving Sheffield Wednesday, will be critical for Gregory. Under the terms of his 28-day touchline ban, he will watch both matches from the stand. As well as denying him the opportunity for conflict with the fourth official, the change will enable him to gauge his employer's mood at uncomfortably close quarters.

The sight of high earners like Benito Carbone and Paul Merson engineering a win rather than warming the bench doubtless heartened Ellis. The Italian scored his first Villa goal with a stunning volley late in the first half, and the faithful booed when he was replaced by Julian Joachim, just as they did when the roles were reversed at Everton.

Dion Dublin headed the second, climaxing a spell in which Merson provided invention where there is too often only industry. Villa seemed to be cruising, but Darlington, who went close either side of Carbone's opener, gave the tie a belated twist of tension. After David James parried Peter Duffield's penalty, Paul Heckingbottom ran in the rebound.

As the "Darlo" contingent roared "Are you watching, Hartlepool?", their eccentric chairman, George Andrews, swayed with scarf aloft in the posh seats. Gregory, a whistling, waving, shouting dug-out fidget at the best of times, may find similar breaches of protocol hard to resist.

Goals: Carbone (43) 1-0; Dublin (63) 2-0; Heckingbottom (71) 2-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Delaney, Merson, Taylor, Thompson (Stone, 80), Wright; Dublin, Carbone (Joachim, 82). Substitutes not used: Vassell, Calderwood, Cutler (gk).

Darlington (3-5-2): Samways; Liddle, Aspin, Tutill; Oliver, Atkinson (Brumwell, 65), Heaney, Heckingbottom, Gray (Reed, 90); Duffield, Nogan (Hjorth, 69). Substitutes not used: Leah, Finch (gk).

Referee: P Richards (Preston).

Bookings: Aston Villa: Taylor. Darlington: Gray, Atkinson.

Man of the match: Merson.

Attendance: 22,101.

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