ASTON VILLA swept to the top of the Premier League for the first time yesterday, becoming its top scorers in the process, with an emphatic victory over an abject Middlesbrough side at Villa Park.
The seventh leaders of the 'new' competition, Villa last held such exalted status under Graham Taylor in March 1990, when Liverpool went on to take the title. Although Manchester United may return to the summit tonight, this time it is likely to go down to the wire.
Ron Atkinson had been concerned that Villa were again without his prolific namesake, the injured Dalian, yet they achieved their highest tally of the season. The goals were shared by five players, including the imperious Paul McGrath and his fellow centre-back, Shaun Teale.
In contrast with their last home match, a scrappy draw against Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup, Villa's midfield quartet made their superior skills tell. Garry Parker and the captain, Kevin Richardson, particularly caught the eye with the sheer range of their distribution, and the latter can seldom have been more influential even when winning championship medals with Everton and Arsenal.
A 3-0 half-time lead did scant justice to the home side's superiority. They had created no fewer than 11 clear chances, although curiously the first did not arrive until the 16th minute, by which time Middlesbrough might easily have been ahead.
After only seven minutes, Paul Wilkinson outjumped McGrath at the far post to head just past an upright, with John Hendrie inches away from diverting the ball into the net. It was to be the only occasion on which any Middlesbrough man got the better of McGrath.
In the 26th minute, Parker drifted into the visitors' area to pick up Steve Staunton's pass with half the Boro back four committed to pushing out and the other half hanging back. Turning inside Derek Whyte, the midfielder's shot struck the Scottish international on its way into the net.
Villa's second, six minutes later, owed as much to the indecisiveness of Stephen Pears and good refereeing by Keith Cooper as to McGrath's opportunism. As Stephen Froggatt's centre dropped, the goalkeeper's hands and the Irishman's head met it simultaneously. Before Pears could plead a case of Steve Sherwood Syndrome, McGrath had bundled in his third goal of the season.
A minute before the interval McGrath turned playmaker, releasing Dean Saunders, who rounded Pears only to clip the ball against the bar. Dwight Yorke, who had already fired against a post and spurned two other opportunities, dived to head home.
The fourth goal, on 58 minutes, was route-one stuff, Saunders fastening on to Nigel Spink's long clearance before drilling the ball past Pears for his 12th strike of the season for Villa. Another 10 minutes and Teale had emulated his distinguished partner, slotting home when a Staunton cross was allowed to reach the back post.
Understandably, Villa eased off, although the woodwork denied Saunders a second goal. Craig Hignett, a lively substitute for Middlesbrough, had a drive well saved by Spink and another kicked off the line either side of his 83rd- minute goal from Hendrie's pass. Significantly, McGrath had volunteered to go off and give Neil Cox a run-out moments earlier.
Nevertheless Ron Atkinson enjoyed it all so much that for the first time in 18 months at Villa he stayed in the stand rather than coming down to fret on the bench. 'I'm still making United favourites,' he said, aware that his former club buckled under the weight of such expectations last spring. 'I'll be surprised if they don't win at QPR. But I still think the weekend's most significant result was Arsenal's victory.'
Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath (Cox, 82), Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Yorke, Froggatt (Beinlich, 70). Substitute not used: Bosnich (gk).
Middlesbrough: Pears; Mohan, Phillips, Whyte (Pollock, 67), Gittens, Falconer, Kavanagh (Hignett, h/t), Peake, Wilkinson, Wright, Hendrie. Substitute not used: Ironside (gk).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).
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