Football: Players' lack of passion hurt Little

At one stage Aston Villa seemed to be on course for a championship challenge.. But, as Glenn Moore explains, something was amiss
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FOR ONCE a game of Villa Park Cluedo may not have ended with just Deadly Doug, in the Boardroom, holding a smoking gun. Instead, the guilty cards could also reveal Stan Collymore and Savo Milosevic, in the dressing- room, with a sawn-off shotgun. Why that weapon? Anything more precise and they would have missed.

While the Aston Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, may prove to have been ultimately responsible for Brian Little's resignation as manager, certain players appear to bear more than their usual burden of guilt. One is Milosevic. Bought on the evidence of a video, he has only just returned to the team after being suspended for spitting at fans. He only came back to maintain his World Cup chances and is thought to be looking forward to next summer when his contract expires and he can negotiate a post-Bosman payday.

As for Collymore, this is what Marcus Gayle, the Wimbledon striker said after playing against him on Saturday: "Non-League players would give everything for his shirt and play in the Premiership for nothing. Stan didn't want to know, yet he earns all this money. It's not about money though, it's about hunger and Stan just hasn't got it any more."

Even these two may bear the thumbprint of Ellis's tinkering. The chairman is believed to have been an enthusiastic supporter of the signings of Collymore and Milosevic, but, despite a recent share issue, he has been unable to produce the funds required to strengthen the team further.

Little must inevitably take a measure of responsibility for Villa's current plight. They may be in the last eight of the Uefa Cup but they have lost four of their last five Premiership matches and are perilously close to the relegation zone. In recent weeks, their play has been notable for its lack of passion and some of the team selections have provoked surprise.

After a bright start with the purchases of players like Mark Draper and Gareth Southgate, Little's dealings in the transfer market have been flawed. As well as spending pounds 11m on Collymore and Milosevic, he wasted pounds 4m on Sasa Curcic and has barely played Julian Joachim. In addition, young players have not come through as hoped.

After saving Villa from relegation when he replaced Ron Atkinson in November 1994, Little took the club to fourth and fifth in the Premiership and also won the Coca-Cola Cup.

Little played three at the back and two up, a policy worked out with players on long walks in the Warwickshire countryside in the summer of 1995. In attack, Dwight Yorke provided sparkle, but it became obvious last season that they lacked that extra ingredient championship contenders require.

Thus the move for Collymore. It is said, in some quarters, that he was Ellis's signing, rushed upon Little in May. Perhaps, but Little would surely not have spent pounds 7m on a player he did not want. The move did appear to make sense. Collymore, a Holte Ender as a boy, still lived in his beloved Cannock. If any club could make Collymore tick again Villa, it seemed, could and no one doubts his talent, just its application. With a Collymore in form, Villa would have that unpredictability in attack that can turn draws into wins.

Collymore was unpredictable all right. Even his biggest detractors did not predict he would score only four Premiership goals in the first seven months, not one of them a winning one. Little has persisted with him but changed everything else, trying three up front, then two, then switching to four at the back.

Nothing has worked, except in Europe where Villa have shown passion, patience and perception. Which makes yesterday an odd time to leave, a week before they meet Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals. It would appear that Ellis and Little, who he signed as an apprentice three decades ago and still maintained a paternal air towards, had an unreconcilable disagreement. Maybe Little, emboldened by the standing ovation he received from the shareholders at Monday night's AGM, demanded more of Ellis financially than the chairman was willing - or able - to give. Maybe Ellis believed Little had run out of ideas to lift the team.

After Saturday's defeat at Selhurst Park, Wimbledon's players were scathing about Villa. "They don't know how much trouble they are in," Jason Euell said: "I think they're going to struggle. They haven't got that killer instinct." No one could accuse Villa's chairman of lacking the killer instinct, it is just a shame that some of the club's players were not as deadly.