Football: Honest John rises above dirty tricks

Aston Villa's manager remains unfazed and determined at the end of a turbulent week
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The Independent Online
THE WOES that at present beset Aston Villa were encapsulated on Friday afternoon by the sight of Stan Collymore departing the training ground on crutches, his right leg cocooned in a bandage bigger than one of those apres-ski boots. "Done me ankle, mate," was Collymore's response to a gentle question about what had happened, before he dumped some belongings in his silver Mercedes coupe and was driven away in a team-mate's BMW.

There goes another striker on the remorseless conveyor belt whisking people through Villa's exit doors. Savo Milosevic off to Real Zaragoza, Dwight Yorke snapped up at last by Manchester United and now Collymore, out of action yet again before this afternoon's first home game of the season against Middlesbrough.

Somehow Villa's manager, John Gregory, seems supremely unfazed by setbacks that come in multiples. He breezed in for a chat clutching a sheaf of information he had just extracted from the Internet about one of his heroes, Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately, Springsteen is not a striker, but Gregory was calm, jaunty even, in the face of the Collymore calamity. "Yeah, he tripped over a leaf, he has pulled an eyelash." Good news, then, that Gregory has retained sanity and sense of humour after a close season which he has said "seemed like six months to me" and included Collymore offering more punch to his celebrity girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson in a Paris bar than he has done for Villa lately.

For the man who took over the manager's job only in February, the blows have been unremitting. Steve Staunton went back to Liverpool on an end- of-contract free transfer and his pounds 3m replacement, David Unsworth, egged on by a wife who preferred Merseyside's way of life, has got his wish to be sold on to Everton in one of football's more farcical episodes.

This was effortlessly capped in the disaster stakes by the loss of Yorke.

It was announced last Thursday and by a supreme stroke of ill- fortune for the Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, that the club's annual meeting was scheduled for that evening. Ellis was berated by furious supporters. Aston Villa's one-word motto is "Prepared", but they weren't prepared to put up with this. Ellis, reading from a written statement, turned over two pages, lost his thread and then lost the plot, too.

Afterwards, understandably anxious to get away, he reversed his Rolls- Royce into the Land Rover belonging to his manager. The vehicle's offside front wing is badly dented but Gregory has not only emerged from the shenanigans undamaged, he is being offered a lucrative two-year extension by Ellis to a contract due to expire in 2000, indication of how well, at 44, Gregory, is handling his first big managerial job. His frankness and transparent honesty have caused the odd collision with others. Gregory smiled: "Alex Ferguson said 'If John Gregory is still a manager in 10 years time he will be more careful with his comments.'"

The dust-up with Ferguson over Yorke has generated golden copy and much acrimony, with accusations of dirty tricks flying between the clubs. Gregory is in no doubt that Ferguson's tactic was to unsettle Villa's best player. "Alex rang me up and said it would be totally unfair not to let Dwight come to Old Trafford, where he wanted to go, and that pounds 8m was an enormous amount." Gregory shook his head. "Unbelievable.

"He conducted a campaign through the newspapers to entice Dwight. United tried to push us into a corner, tried to pressurise us, tried to make us panic, but we refused to buckle. We weren't going to be pushed around by Manchester United. I had the complete backing of my board, the decision was mine, and as far as I was concerned the boy was going to stay here."

Why, then, did Gregory let Yorke go? "It was clear he wanted to get away. Anyone seeing his performance at Everton last Saturday could tell that. We played with 10 men that day. Last Tuesday night my head was spinning so much I went to bed at half eight, something I've never done before. I made the decision he would go about half past 11 on Wednesday night because he had told me he didn't want to play for Villa.

"It was probably United's last throw of the dice. Basically they thought 'He ain't gonna move, we have to insult the fans and the club by getting him to say he wants to a move.' They tried everything else, believe you me.

"We are on the same footing with Man United, we both play in the Premiership and meet them on a twice-yearly basis. The difference is Man United are without question the biggest club in the country, watched by 55,000 whether they are playing Wimbledon or Liverpool. Their turnover last year was pounds 87m, ours was 30-odd, Liverpool's was 30-odd. Their turnover is bigger than AC Milan and Inter Milan put together. It is phenomenal.

"But that doesn't give them the divine right to belittle everybody else. I am glad the Dwight Yorke scenario is over but I am awfully sad that I have lost the player. It only makes me more determined than ever to..." Gregory's voice trailed away.

The Scunthorpe-born Gregory has not often been lost for a word in a playing career as a midfielder which took in Northampton, Villa, Brighton, Queen's Park Rangers, Derby and Portsmouth. While at QPR he won six England caps in 1983-84. Terry Venables was his mentor and it was Venables who recommended Gregory to his namesake, Jim Gregory, at Portsmouth, where the 35-year- old lasted only 12 months in his first managerial job, an experience he says put him back three or four years. He was offered a coaching post at Leicester by Brian Little, who took Gregory with him when he moved to Villa. The next managerial lodgement was at Wycombe Wanderers, where he learned in 16 months the art of shoestring accounting - "how many toilet rolls we needed a month, how many light bulbs and whether people were abusing the club phones by making private calls".

Gregory was surprised to be offered Little's job at Villa "where it's all about adding noughts to everything", though Ellis's reasoning ("I decided it had to be a case of better the devil you know") was hardly calculated to inspire confidence.

However, Gregory has shown himself a skilful, if outspoken, operator and has no qualms either about the size of his task or about Villa's assured future. "Brian Little saw all this coming, he got out at a good time, with problems looming off and on the field. But we will be OK, we've got some good lads. I'm going into Europe with the squad I've got. I'm not happy about that but I'll make the best use I can.

"Last year, we probably got it the wrong way round. We relied on the Uefa Cup as our escape, hung our hat on that. Signing two players next week who would be able to play in our next match at Sheffield Wednesday is far more important to me than signing two players who won't be eligible for the Uefa Cup." Gregory said he had been assured he could buy "within the financial parameters" - no great surprise considering the funds sloshing around in the Villa Park coffers after the Yorke move - but there is "nobody coming in at the moment". The name of the Spanish World Cup striker Kiko was floated but he joked: "Mrs Kiko doesn't want to move," before aiming a final, venomous jab at Manchester United: "Anyway, Kiko is a contracted player with another club, so I'm not allowed to talk about him."