FOOTBALL: Little comparison for Atkinson to ponder

Coventry City 0 Aston Villa
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The Independent Online

Though the combatants came from nine countries spread over five continents, just 20 miles of motorway separate Coventry and Villa. In more ways than one, events at Highfield Road landed Ron Atkinson with a Little local difficulty.

There is no malice between Atkinson and his successor as Villa manager, Brian Little. Yet the parochial nature of football fans, particularly in an urban sprawl like the West Midlands, means they can hardly avoid comparisons. Before Saturday, the jury was still out on who benefited most from last season's upheavals. Now the case for Coventry is not looking good.

Consider the evidence. When Little stepped into Atkinson's shoes last November, Villa were 19th in the Premiership. After a turnover of 16 players, which left them pounds 7.6m down, they have risen so far so fast that they run the risk of nosebleeds.

In contrast, Atkinson found Coventry in 17th spot. Hype springs eternal, but seven months on, after running up an unprecedented transfer deficit of pounds 5m, they are 16th in a division two clubs smaller.

Little suggested that a three-goal margin cannot, in the final analysis, flatter a team. At a later press conference, which made one wish that managers were obliged to argue the toss together, Atkinson volunteered the opposite verdict. To neutral eyes, Villa never looked fully in control until the closing minutes.

Coventry, explosively served in attack by Peter Ndlovu, are too lightweight to be as cavalier as they were. It was symptomatic of their over-eagerness to go at Villa that even as the visitors kicked off, the left wing-back, Marcus Hall, left a huge gap behind him. Mark Draper exploited the aberration with a long pass to Ian Taylor, whose cross was headed in by Dwight Yorke with 12 seconds gone.

Draper, alternating between economy and expansiveness with a verve befitting one whose heroes played for Brian Clough's Forest and Jimi Hendrix, deserves to be in the England squad to be named today. In the event of Paul Gascoigne crying off, or going in for a re-tint, he would be worth looking at in Norway.

Otherwise none of Villa's principal contributors are available to Terry Venables. Mark Bosnich, who has kept five clean sheets in as many meetings with Coventry, made some staggering saves to win the battle of the Australian keepers. Savo Milosevic and Yorke, the planet's only Serbo- Tobagan strikeforce, did what was required in front of goal, while in midfield Andy Townsend embodied their crucial advantage in sheer power.

Not that Villa should be characterised as prosaic, a stigma that attached itself to Little because of Leicester's lumpen approach in the latter part of their promotion campaign under him. Some of their moves here, notably the flurry of first-time touches that set up a disallowed goal by Milosevic, were as seductive as Manchester United in full flow.

In spite of his goals, Milosevic still looks like Villa's weak link. Little may have a clear edge over Atkinson in results, but as long as Coventry keep Ndlovu they will have a striker with the pace and panache their neighbours need to maintain their bright start.

Goals: Yorke (1) 0-1; Milosevic (84) 0-2; Milosevic (86) 0-.

Coventry City (-5-2): Filan; Borrows, Busst, Williams; Pickering (Strachan, 74), Telfer, Richardson, Isaias, Hall; Ndlovu, Salako. Substitutes not used: Christie, Gould (gk).

Aston Villa (-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton, Southgate; Charles, Taylor, Townsend, Draper, Wright; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Fenton, Carr, Spink (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).