Football: `Potty' Bosnich in the form of his life

Villa's goalkeeper can add to his reputation against Atletico in the Uefa Cup tonight, says Phil Shaw
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FROM turmoil at Aston Villa and trauma with Australia to hat-tricks by Kevin Gallacher, Ronaldo and Romario, Mark Bosnich has taken everything that this season can throw at him and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Everything, that is, bar the proverbial kitchen sink. And after being pelted with batteries, bottles and lighters during the first leg of Villa's Uefa Cup quarter-final at Atletico Madrid, Bosnich should not be surprised to see a unit hurtling out of the Spanish end at Villa Park tonight.

The way the 26-year-old goalkeeper has been performing, he would probably catch it and bowl it to a colleague. For in spite of hugely disappointing results with club and country, Bosnich is not alone in believing that he has never played so well, so consistently.

Ron Atkinson, the manager who took him to Villa after Manchester United brought him over as a 16-year-old, remarked of his defiance against Atletico that Bosnich "might just be the best keeper in the world" (albeit one who, in the finest traditions of the position, was "a bit potty").

Gordon Strachan said after Coventry's FA Cup win at Villa that one of his many fine saves, a mid-air volley after a deflection suddenly changed the trajectory of a shot, was possibly the greatest he had seen.

Oceania's footballer of the year is embarrassed by such praise, although if self-belief were a crime he would be serving life. "Touching wood, and without wishing to appear conceited, I've been very happy with my form," Bosnich says. "I feel I've matured a lot and worked very hard at my game since I got all the publicity for saving penalties a few years ago."

Amid the missiles in Madrid he was composed, brave and agile by turn. He was eventually beaten by Christian Vieri's bludgeoned penalty, which he chastised himself for reaching but not keeping out, and sensed that Raddy Antic's side were content with a 1-0 scoreline. "I think they're confident they can score anywhere in Europe," he says.

The striker who ensured that Atletico went one better was already known to Bosnich. "I trained with Vieri in Sydney when he was 13. His father was a legend in Italy before he came to play in Australia. There was nothing of Christian and a more uncoordinated kid is hard to imagine. Now he's strong, he pulls off defenders' shoulders brilliantly and he's got a good understanding with Kiko. You can see the influence of Juventus' training on him."

Talking of the practice pitch, Bosnich was delighted by the return of the former Villa coach John Gregory as manager, much as he was saddened by the "typically unselfish" resignation of Brian Little. "Dwight [Yorke] and I are close, and we often talked about how we missed him after he left for Wycombe," he says.

"He brought something to training that was never really replaced. Now it's as if he never left. The biggest problem has been learning to call him `Boss'. We got used to `Gregs'.

"In Madrid, he'd been back less than a week but his positivity shone through. The vibes he brought into the dressing-room at half-time made a real difference. It was like the Alamo in the first half, but he very calmly reminded us how much better we'd looked when we kept the ball.

"He told us it wouldn't be possible for Atletico to keep going at the same pace in the second half, and he was right."

Gregory's newly appointed coach, Steve Harrison, also impressed Bosnich with his tactical insights and his jester's touch. In the tense moments before the game he did his John Barnes impersonation. "He had us all in fits. We're still a young team and we thrive on light relief."

Heaven knows Villa needed some. Tipped as possible champions, they were out of everything except Europe and the relegation dogfight by the time Gregory swept in. Criticism of Little, of chairman Doug Ellis and the players, notably Stan Collymore, has been relentless. Bosnich accepts that it goes with the territory - "we're getting paid very good money," he says candidly - and tries to use it as "a positive force".

In between Villa's travails came travels with Australia. His nerveless display in Tehran before 128,000 Iranians gave Terry Venables' Socceroos a platform from which to progress to France 98. A lack of what he terms "big-game experience" prevented them from building upon it.

"I know I could still go to maybe two World Cups, but it's really going to hit home this summer because I needed to test myself against guys like Schmeichel, Seaman, Barthez and Peruzzi. I tasted the tournament atmosphere on a smaller scale in the Confederations Cup in Saudi."

In the final, Australia lost 6-0 to Brazil a week after holding the world champions 0-0, yet Bosnich maintains that he had a better match than in Madrid. "I said to my dad: `How can I tell people I played well when I let in six?' He said that if I'd played badly it would have been 12."

Villa are going to need positive thinking by the netfull tonight, but if all else fails Bosnich may be able to call on a favour from fate. On his way to our meeting, he stopped to help a woman whose car had broken down. "I like to think that if you do some good, it comes back to you," he explains, breaking into a laugh. "Maybe if we end up in a penalty shoot- out..."