Football: Key to defence lost and found - Resolute Villa build on a Rock of ages

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FOR anyone seeking to fathom the claret-and-blueprint for Aston Villa's best start since the war, John Gregory articulates it in a phrase no spin doctor could improve upon. Strikers win matches, he says, but defenders win championships.

Mark Bosnich, busily piling up clean sheets behind the Premiership's most parsimonious rearguard, echoed his manager's maxim as he held forth in the drizzle and darkness of a tiny Norwegian stadium after Villa's latest shut-out on Tuesday. He also hopes that it holds good for one particular cup competition.

The 26-year-old goalkeeper has a personal reason for trusting that the 3-0 stroll against Stromsgodset - which completed a 6-2 aggregate win - heralds another protracted Uefa Cup campaign. While proud to represent Australia, he realises his chances of appearing in the World Cup finals are limited.

European football thus assumes an added significance for Bosnich. Although he has yet to commit himself beyond a contract that ends next summer, his belief that Villa can at least emulate last season's run to the quarter- finals is encouraged by the emphasis Gregory places on defensive strategy.

One of the final straws for Brian Little before resigning in February was a 5-0 battering at Blackburn. Little had toyed with using four at the back in a bid to reverse their slump. The new incumbent and his coach, Steve Harrison, have seldom strayed from the three-man unit with which the previous regime were once synonymous and successful.

The system, therefore, is a familiar one. The basic trio is supplemented by wing-backs, with Gregory, like Little, favouring full-backs rather than wingers. The formation is designed both to avoid being caught square and to maximise the potential for turning defence into attack.

The personnel protecting Bosnich are also the same - with one conspicuous exception - but Gregory admits having made the fine-tuning of defensive tactics his main priority in pre-season training. He and Harrison share the conviction that being organised at the back is the foundation for success in English football.

After the 1-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday, Bosnich described Villa's defence as the best he had played behind. Praise indeed given that previous versions featured Steve Staunton and Paul McGrath, the latter being part of a back line which the keeper dubbed "The Rocks".

McGrath's fellow members, Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, have a new partner who was still in nappies when the Dubliner first placed his notorious knees in the firing line. Gareth Barry will not be 18 until February, yet his poise and pace have prompted normally cautious pundits to suggest that he will play for England by the Millennium.

Barry, who was associated with Brighton until one of Little's scouts spotted him, expected to spend the season in the reserves. Then Staunton left and his replacement, David Unsworth, discovered that Birmingham was not in the North-west. Barry came in and policed the left side with a composure most coaches would kill for.

Ehiogu is a veteran of nearly 200 League games but does not turn 26 until next month. Having cut his footballing teeth on Hackney Marshes, he made the England team as a substitute against China before Euro 96. After a dip in form last year he is again using his awesome physique to real effect.

Southgate has thrived on the responsibility of being both head Rock and captain, leading as much by calm example as by strident exhortation. Early in the first home match (before which the city's Sports Argus carried a spread headlined "Villa in crisis"), his surge from his own half deep into Middlesbrough territory lifted colleagues and crowd alike. They have not stopped buzzing.

Paul Merson, who was with Boro that day but has since joined Villa, compares Gregory's defence favourably with the fabled back four George Graham assembled at Highbury. Whether Southgate and co can stand the test of time like their Highbury counterparts remains to be seen. However, the longer their present pre-eminence continues, and the deeper they go in Europe, the more tempted the ambitious Bosnich admits he will be to stay.