THE PERSONALISED number plate of the Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis' claret-coloured Rolls Royce reads AV1. A grandiose statement but one which, after the Southampton defender Dean Richards' header consigned Villa to their sixth game without a win, looks likely be unfulfilled for some time.
Ellis's departure from Villa Park was momentarily delayed by ignition problems with the Roller. His only comment about the defeat was that he was "as sick as a dog". The Villa chairman, having seen John Gregory burn a pounds 16m transfer deficit in the club accounts, will be expecting his manager's expensively assembled team to start firing on all cylinders sooner rather than later.
Gregory, who has taken to sucking a lollipop during the game, knows the nature of the beast. Ellis, as regards hiring and firing managers, is not a suck-and-see-it type of chairman. However, the Villa manager said he had detected no tangible change in their relationship.
"He's been very supportive this season," he said. We meet fairly frequently. As you know we had a falling out a couple of months ago but everything was sorted out with a quick chat and a cup of tea."
Gregory, who instructed his players not to speak to the press after the match, admitted that Villa's next two matches - away at Coventry and Everton - after the Euro 2000 play-offs have taken on extra significance. "We've got to pull our finger out and we've got to come back with some points from those games," he said.
It says something about Villa's slump that even Southampton, those perennial relegation flirts, came to Birmingham looking for a win. That bullishness was reflected by Dave Jones' decision to play 4-4-2 rather than 4-5-1, pushing Mark Hughes up to support Marian Pahars.
It was doubly satisfying for Richards and his defensive partner Claus Lundekvam that not only did the two centre-backs help keep a clean sheet, they also combined to score the goal. "It's something that we've been working on, getting Claus to the near post," said the former Wolves defender.
Richards, like Kieron Dyer, is that rare specimen. An English defender who has made the leap from the Nationwide to the Premiership and not looked out of place. "Sometimes in the Nationwide you could cruise through games," said Richards. "In the Premiership you've got to be on your toes and your concentration level has to be higher because the pace is that much quicker."
He added: "The talk of Southampton is that we've got the best side the town has had for some time. I think we can go on and not look just to avoid relegation but to finish mid-table." A level of ambition that is unlikely to be tolerated at Villa Park.
Goal: Richards (84) 0-1.
Aston Villa: (4-4-2) James; Delaney, Southgate, Calderwood, Wright; Stone, Barry, Merson (Ghrayib, 80), Thompson (Boateng, 80), Carbone, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Watson, Draper, Enckelman (gk).
Southampton: (4-4-2) Jones; Dodd, Lundekvam, Richards, Colleter; Ripley (Boa Morte, 74), Oakley, Soltvedt (Beattie, 85), Kachloul; Hughes, Pahars. Substitutes not used: Moss (gk), Le Tissier, Benali.
Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay).
Bookings: Villa: Thompson. Southampton: Richards, Kachloul, Colleter.
Man of the match: Richards.
Attendance: 26,474.Reuse content