Football: Merson revels in the Villa high life

Aston Villa 2 Merson 45, Taylor 57 Wimbledon 0 Attendance: 32,959
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The Independent Online
VILLA'S FOURTH straight win completed a takeover that had nothing to do with predatory media giants, enabling John Gregory's team to depose Liverpool at the top of the Premiership.

Paul Merson marked his Villa debut by slotting home the rebound from his first-half penalty after Alan Thompson had earlier missed from the spot. Ian Taylor made sure of the points against a Wimbledon side forced to play the second half with 10 men after Carl Leaburn was sent off.

Since Gregory succeeded Brian Little as manager last season, Villa have lost only two matches in 16 but Gregory is determined to keep their achievements in perspective, especially after a performance yesterday with which he was not especially impressed.

"To be truthful, it is a little bit scary to be at the top because the level of expectation now will be that much higher. And we won't know until we play the big guns whether we are good enough. We did not play very well today, even though we won, and if we have aspirations of remaining near the top of the table we will have to do better," he said.

Wimbledon at least avoided a repetition of last Wednesday's nightmare at Upton Park, when they conceded three goals in the opening 27 minutes before mounting their extraordinary comeback. Not that Villa did not go close to subjecting their opponents to another uncomfortable start, two chances falling to Thompson.

Most of the traffic flowed one way, although a fierce volley by Jason Euell had brought Gareth Southgate some discomfort when it struck the Villa defender in the face. The stoppage for Southgate to be treated preceded another more unusual interruption when the referee David Elleray was obliged to change his grey and black shirt, apparently because Villa players felt it was not easily distinguishable from Wimbledon's dark blue. Without a spare to hand, the Harrow schoolmaster accepted the Villa bench's offer of a white sweatshirt.

Meanwhile, Merson's efforts to make an impact on his Villa debut did not at first meet with conspicuous success. He inadvertently blocked a goal-bound Taylor header, although the pounds 6.65m former Middlesbrough striker did supply the pass from which Joachim won Villa's controversial first penalty after 33 minutes.

The award, for an apparent foul by Chris Perry that looked little more than a nudge, seemed harsh. Perry was booked but justice appeared to have been done when Thompson drove his kick well wide.

Villa fans were frustrated and understandably bemused, given that Lee Hendrie had converted the match-winning penalty against Newcastle last week. Gregory confessed the change had been his decision after Thompson had impressed in penalty practice on Friday.

When Elleray pointed to the spot for a second time, a minute before half- time, there was little doubt over the wisdom of the decision after Leaburn tripped Ugo Ehiogu. The Wimbledon striker received a red card after Elleray judged that the Villa man was in a clear scoring position.

This time Merson stepped up in Thompson's place, although the Holte End shared a collective intake of breath when Sullivan made the right guess and dived to his left to block the kick. Unhappily for him, the ball spun away from his grasp and Merson flicked the loose ball past him.

The numerical disadvantage did not deter Wimbledon from attacking Villa in the second half, but the threat of a Villa counter-attack was ever present and the visitors' hopes of clawing a way back into the match were dealt a terminal blow when the home side doubled their lead. Joachim's cross did not bounce kindly for Taylor but he was athletic enough to hook the ball home via the foot of Sullivan's right-hand post.

Wimbledon's manager, Joe Kinnear, did not appear too impressed with the referee Elleray's handling of the match. "I think we were beaten more by the referee than by Villa," said Kinnear, who added, tongue-in-cheek: "I think he was more comfortable wearing one of Villa's shirts than he was in his referee's top."