Football: Life at the top suits Gregory

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NOT SO long ago John Gregory seemed to have one topic of conversation. Ask him a question and the words "Dwight Yorke" came back, but if that made dinner parties something of a chore he has moved on since then.

To be top of the Premiership in your first full season is plenty to talk about and it is conceivable that Villa could be six points clear by this evening. Unlikely, as they have won only once on their last 10 visits to Leeds United, but the fact the prospect is there is a testament to the progress made under Gregory.

It is fair to say that his arrival at Villa Park from Wycombe Wanderers on 25 February did not lead to dancing in the streets of Aston. Perhaps it ought to have done as Gregory's League record is not just good, it is phenomenal: 27 out of 33 points last season and 13 out of 15 this.

Now, with due respect to their previous opponents, comes a real test of those statistics, a trip to third-place Leeds, whose parsimonious defence has conceded only one goal this season.

Liverpool are Villa's closest pursuers and they are at home to Charlton Athletic, who have come back to terra firma with a bang since they led the Premiership, albeit fleetingly. A 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford followed by a 2-1 reverse at home to Derby suggests the early season "we've proved the critics wrong" might have been premature.

Anfield is not the ideal choice for a recuperative venue, particularly after Liverpool's resounding 3-0 win over Kosice in Slovakia on Tuesday night in the Uefa Cup, but Alan Curbishley, who will be the first Charlton manager to win there since 1954 if his side prevail, was bullish yesterday.

"The lads are desperate to bounce back," he said. "I didn't go overboard over our first three results and I'm not worried by successive league defeats. The most important thing is that we learn something from every match."

After Coventry had lost to Manchester United last week their manager, Gordon Strachan, was scathing of his players, accusing them of being psychologically cowed before they took to the pitch. "We're in the bottom three now and I don't like it," he said. "There's a stigma about the place and we're going to work very, very hard to get out of there."

Fortunately for Strachan, the fixture planners have taken on some of the toil, placing the Sky Blues at home to a team whose energy levels ought to be the equivalent of a flat battery. You could argue there is no bad time to play Newcastle at the moment, but just 41 hours after a gruelling European Cup-Winners' Cup tie is as good as any.

If Coventry have been bad, however, Southampton have been dire. As the club left March they were 10th in the Premiership and Europe was a realistic prospect. One win in their final seven matches was the slip betwixt Uefa Cup and lip, although that sequence has taken on a rosy shade in comparison to this season's start.

Five defeats and 12 goals conceded is calamitous although their manager, Dave Jones, did draw straw-clutching comfort from a 1-1 Worthington Cup draw against Fulham in midweek. "Maybe we've decided to pull our fingers out at last," he said. "Once we get a few points on the board we'll be away."

Derby, who have crept quietly into fourth place, meet Leicester while West Ham, who are eighth, travel to Nottingham Forest with a growing reputation as the great unpredictables of the Premiership. A 4-3 defeat at home to Wimbledon (after being 3-0 up) has been followed with a win over Liverpool and a 2-0 shock at Northampton. Predict the scoreline at the City Ground if you dare.

Which you could also say about tomorrow's game at Highbury between England's two Champions' League representatives. Arsenal won the corresponding fixture 3-2 last year but the previous season Manchester United won 2-1. The match will be fascinating, not only to see how both sides recover from their European labours but also for the juxtaposition of the striking doyen, Dennis Bergkamp, and the pounds 12m-man in his wake, Yorke.

If nothing else, it will give John Gregory plenty to talk about.