Football: Merson's miss stymies Villa

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The Independent Online
West Ham United 0 Aston Villa 0

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 26,002

JOHN GREGORY'S men kept the portcullis to his side's defensive fortress firmly bolted against incursion from a West Ham whose preparation for the contest had not exactly been free from distraction.

Villa secured their point with the minimum of fuss yet who is to suggest that they cannot maintain their excellent progress after an afternoon when, had Paul Merson not spurned one of the most inviting opportunities he will ever receive, they would surely have maintained their healthy advantage over a fast-closing Manchester United.

Berkovic and Hartson? You would have thought they were that other pair of London scoundrels, Burke and Hare, given the notoriety they have achieved, even if last week there were so many hugs and kisses between them they were more like Hansel and Gretel.

Fortunately if we were looking for something to gladden our hearts - and that of the watching England coach Glenn Hoddle - after a week when the game's tawdry side has been to the fore, it emerged in the teenage figures of Rio Ferdinand and Gareth Barry. The former is a centre-back, turned right-winger against Luxembourg; the latter a left-sided defender with a veteran's head on 17-year-old shoulders. Both displayed commendable authority under pressure.

Comfortingly, both are in sensible managerial hands and are being nurtured carefully and Harry Redknapp, maybe luxuriating in his side's point that should really have been none, was charitable enough to lavish praise on his opponents' player.

"I was very impressed with young Barry," the West Ham manager enthused. "He looks a real talent and for a 17-year-old he is very composed."

Gregory added: "There was one time when he took the ball off John Hartson, gave it to Southgate, who kicked it straight into the stand. As someone said 'Which was the one who played for England on Wednesday?' " It was said with a wry smile, but the point was made.

The fact that most interest afterwards was concentrated on the respective defences, in which Villa's back three of Barry, Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, and West Ham's Neil Ruddock and Ian Pearce were admirable, said much about the content of a contest which rarely exploded into the action one might have anticipated given the cast list. Throw Stan Collymore, the self-styled "terminator" Julian Dicks and that former Highbury pair Ian Wright and Merson into a team, not forgetting John Hartson and his training ground victim Eyal Berkovic, and you'd have a real Dysfunctional United. Yet with defences so commanding there was little to stir the blood. Berkovic came closest to a West Ham winner with a second-half drive well saved by Michael Oakes, while before the interval Hartson had only been denied with a splendid chip from outside the area by the agility of the stand in keeper.

Even the presence of referee Paul Alcock who, when push comes to shove, can be counted on to become embroiled with controversy, failed to generate any great dissent, although some officials might have intervened when in the second half Pearce, in the penalty area, found the ball, albeit unwittingly, between arm and chest after a cross from Lee Hendrie. However, the official generously waved play on.

Three defeats now in 20 games since he succeeded Brian Little and two goals conceded this season, in which Villa remain unbeaten, tend to be as relaxing as a Radox bath for a manager, but even so, what extremities of the English language passed through his mind when Merson had only to prod the ball into an empty net after Shaka Hislop had parried Hendrie's initial effort into his path, but instead allowed the Hammers keeper to direct the ball wide, can only be imagined.

All Gregory would say afterwards was: "For the last 30 minutes we dominated and it was only a question of time before we scored, but it wouldn't come. West Ham is always a very difficult ground to play at. Manchester United have lost a couple of championships when they've come here." Talk of which leads inevitably to speculation about whether Villa can sustain their progress, particularly with the ominous shadow of Alex Ferguson's team creeping up behind them.

Redknapp has no doubt on that score. "Villa look a formidable side," he conceded. "They're well balanced, look very solid and are very confident and if John's got the pounds 18m to spend, as they say he has, they must have a reasonable chance."

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