Football: Merson makes Villa's day

FA Premiership: Gregory's boys miss penalties but just squeeze home
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Aston Villa 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1

Merson 69, Taylor 82 De Bilde pen 20

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 23,885

IF YOUR goalkeeper saves two penalties, you take the lead with one yourself, and control relentless attacks, you deserve more than another costly defeat. But such was Sheffield Wednesday's lot at Villa Park yesterday. Their disappointment, however, paled beside Villa's relief at their first Premiership victory since 18 September - one which may well save the job of their manager, John Gregory.

Any celebrations at Villa Park were cut short, however, by the news that Dion Dublin had been taken to hospital after a collision with Gerald Sibon with what his manager said could be a "serious neck injury".

But the roller-coaster week for Gregory ended on an upswing. It began with apparent elimination from the Worthington Cup by West Ham on penalties (via a miss from the spot by one G Southgate), continued with the revelation that West Ham fielded an ineligible player (which led to the Football League last night ordering the match to be replayed), and reached a peak with this incident-filled affair against the Premiership's most forlorn club.

For Gregory's counterpart, Danny Wilson, whose side are rooted to the bottom of the table having managed only six points in 16 games, every game is a climax of sorts. It would still take a nifty U-turn of fortune to save them from relegation now, although last night Wilson was still defiant: "I don't think there's a lot wrong with us." That is a matter of debate, especially as they have now conceded 31 goals away from home.

Yesterday's central character on the pitch was obviously Benito Carbone, who had spoken provocatively and enthusiastically about what he wanted to achieve against Wednesday, with whom he had so many disagreements in his time with them. Naturally, his every touch was keenly jeered by the fans of his former club.

That helped divert attention for Villa, and Gareth Barry immediately took advantage, slipping unchallenged through midfield and speeding a 25-yard shot that Srnicek palmed over. Carbone himself demanded possession at every opportunity and, surprisingly, Wednesday allowed him room to develop his ideas. Not only that, Srnicek virtually invited him to do his worst when clearing directly to his feet. Carbone snapped a shot back towards the ashamed goalkeeper, who managed to push the ball away, but his mistake was one of only many bedevilling Wednesday's defence.

None of those errors, nor the amount of pressure Villa exerted, made much difference to the first significant moment when, after 20 minutes, Ian Taylor tripped Danny Sonner. So from one of their rare attacks, Wednesday scored, albeit indirectly, Gilles de Bilde relishing the penalty chance. The disgusted look on chairman Doug Ellis's face as the ball went in said everything.

The chairman's disposition and that of the fans grew worse when Villa were offered the chance to recover as Dublin, cornered in the penalty area, hit the ball against Alan Quinn's arm. Another penalty. Dublin took a casual stroll towards the ball and struck it reasonably well. Nevertheless, Srnicek saved with a superb dive.

Once Alan Wright had limped off, Villa had Julian Joachim alongside Dublin with Carbone in a free supporting role and Taylor frequently adding his strength to the attack. Yet their combined finishing effort was unimpressive. Des Walker and Emerson Thome restricted Dublin to hopeful headers, but Wednesday still found themselves defending within 30 yards of the goal and breaking away only occasionally.

Not that Wednesday seemed concerned about adding to their score. Defending the lead was priority, and by keeping Villa from attacking on the flanks, they subdued the aerial threat. They also did well to keep Paul Merson outside the penalty area. Villa became increasingly frustrated and ever closer to another embarrassing result.

Finally Merson took control. Possibly bearing in mind their earlier work on keeping him at bay, Wednesday underestimated his shooting ability from long distance. Seeing his way blocked, Merson aimed a shot round Srnicek, whose dive could not prevent the equalising goal. Suddenly Villa seemed about to claim the match. Carbone clouted the foot of the post with a fine free-kick and then... another penalty. Merson, now full of confidence, stepped up and drove what appeared to be a well-struck penalty, but again the remarkable Srnicek made an astonishing save.

Srnicek's performance alone merited a point, but Merson was determined to recompense for what was hardly a penalty miss, more a wonderful denial. Either way, after 82 minutes he ran from deep against receding defenders and swung a centre towards the far post. Taylor had run in parallel on the other side of the pitch and dived to head in Villa's face-saving and perhaps manager-saving goal.