Football: O'Neill warns board of exodus of players

Leicester City 3 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Online
MARTIN O'NEILL denied it was a threat, even a veiled one, but how else could you read his comment? "Whatever is going on up in the boardroom," he said, "they'll miss these players when they go. Badly."

A threat? Political journalists in the Eighties had ministers in open conflict with Margaret Thatcher for statements far more diluted of criticism than that.

Those scribes should have diverted from the Labour party conference to Filbert Street because politics dominated this match like Leicester dominated Villa.

It was evident in the programme, supposedly the club's link to its customers, which did not allow O'Neill an avenue to express his thoughts, and it was apparent in the crowd which shouted "Pierpoint out" at every lull in the action. The reek of intrigue dominated everything.

A meeting will be held this week but no one is holding their breath for a settlement of the off-the-field war which has put chief executive Barrie Pierpoint on one side and the chairman John Elsom on the other. And O'Neill fears the casualties will extend beyond the boardroom.

It will have an effect, he said, somewhere down the line when either players get fed up with the bickering or the finances get so strained that someone has to be sold.

"These boys come here amid all the boardroom wrangling and produce a performance like that and sometimes I think the directors should have a wee look at it," O'Neill said. "This game is about the supporters and the players."

So far the effect has been beneficial to both. Like Renaissance Italy, when political unrest spawned magnificent art, Leicester's players appear to be using matches to escape from the squabbling.

Since it became public they have had the better of a draw with Liverpool, have reached the third round of the Worthington Cup and beaten Villa. Thoroughly so in the last case.

The visitors arrived at Filbert Street as joint second in the Premiership and left it exposed as pretenders, their on-field disarray as evident in this match as their opponents' backroom variety.

Their captain, Gareth Southgate, was sent off for two bookable offences but just as absent was any sign of craft. Yet seasoned Villa watchers claimed this was a better performance than some that have yielded fortunate victories which makes you understand why their home gates are declining.

Pass forward, pass sideways, pass back, Villa had lots of possession but little clue how to use it and their first serious attack did not arrive until 52 minutes, by which time Leicester were already two goals ahead courtesy of Muzzy Izzet's fifth strike of the season and Southgate's own goal when he bought Emile Heskey's dummy as effectively as if he had handed over his credit card.

That proved a foretaste for Southgate's next 17 minutes because he was beaten to a header by Frank Sinclair on the way to Tony Cottee's 56th minute goal and was twice bamboozled by Heskey and the cards progressed from yellow to red.

That left Villa's manager John Gregory seething. "The sending-off was totally unjustified," he said. "It's strange, Emile could probably pick up Gareth Southgate and throw him the length of the pitch yet he has developed the fine art of dropping like a sack of spuds when he's touched. The referee got conned. Southgate was fouled and I think you'll see that on television. Gareth's distraught.

"I thought Mr Winter's performance defied belief from start to finish and there are a few managers in the Premiership who will echo my thoughts. He was very poor, but he's not answerable to anyone so there's not much you can do about it. I'll probably just get another fine."

In fact television evidence was not conclusive and neither was Southgate's dismissal because Villa improved as a 10-man unit and if Ugo Ehiogu's 75th minute header that grazed a post had flown in to add to Dion Dublin's goal an interesting finale would have been in prospect.

Not that Villa's revival dampened O'Neill's delight. "We were brilliant today," he said. "It was as good a performance as we've produced in a long, long time. We've been threatening to do it but to overrun a club the size of Villa was fantastic. I would have killed myself if I had dropped any points at all."

He stopped for a second to let a malicious thought cross his mind and then discarded it. "I was nearly going to say maybe some of the directors should have done," he said, provoking laughter all round. It was light relief amid a wearying and damaging situation.

O'Neill, you can be assured, finds nothing funny in Leicester's current predicament.

Goals: Izzet (39) 1-0; Southgate og (47) 2-0; Cottee (55) 3-0; Dublin (73) 3-1.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Flowers; Sinclair, Elliott, Gilchrist; Impey, Savage (Zagorakis, 86), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee (Marshall, 81). Substitutes not used: Fenton, S Oakes, Arphexad (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Enkelman; Watson (Delaney, 63), Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Boateng, Taylor, Hendrie, Thompson (Calderwood, 66); Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Merson, Samuel, M Oakes (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Bookings: Leicester: Flowers. Villa: Watson, Hendrie. Sending off: Villa: Southgate.

Man of the match: Izzet.

Attendance: 19, 917.