Football: Snow-bound Villa slip from the summit

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Middlesbrough 0

Aston Villa 0

Attendance: 34,643

JOHN GREGORY failed his first managerial test of 1998. A 2-1 defeat against Wigan left him in charge of a team placed 19th in the Third Division table. The meteorically-rising manager of the past 12 months suffered a setback in his first league fixture of 1999 yesterday, though a relative one at that. Failure to beat Middlesbrough cost Gregory's Aston Villa side pole position in the all-England title race.

In front of a record crowd at the Riverside Stadium - 34,643 - Gregory's boys promised much in purple first-half patches but were unable to deliver the three points they needed to stay ahead of Chelsea at the Premiership's summit.

Ultimately, they had reason to be grateful for the point they took with them back to the West Midlands, Middlesbrough having looked the more likely winners after the break. "We're satisfied with what we've got," Steve Harrison said, Gregory having delegated post-match comment duties to his first-team coach. "We had to be resilient today. It was a good performance in many ways."

There was another notable absentee yesterday, as well as lacking a goal. Paul Merson was not around to be led into temptation, four months after deciding to become a Villan the day he came across a copy of the Racing Post in the home dressing room at the Riverside. While the one-time gambler was nursing his injured back, his old manager must have been hoping he was not suffering from a bad side after a run of three defeats, the shortcomings in Bryan Robson's side having been exposed in the three weeks since they clung on for a 3-2 league win at Old Trafford.

Perhaps the baring of Bernie Slaven's behind in a local shop window, in recognition of Boro's unexpected success against Manchester United, was tempting fate too far. They certainly had a bum deal on their return to Old Trafford in the FA Cup last Sunday, though Neil Maddison, unjustly deemed to have felled the appositely named Nicky Butt for the penalty that gave Manchester United the lead, was out to make his own luck yesterday.

Pushed up from defence to fill the midfield gap vacated by the injured Robbie Mustoe, the former Saint was prominent as Boro strove to take the initiative. The right-foot drive he struck across the face of the Villa goal after seven minutes, though, was the warning shot that sparked the visitors to attacking life. Julian Joachim opened up the home defence with a piercing left-wing run, cutting inside and testing Mark Schwarzer with a stinging low drive that the Australian did well to hold.

Villa were suddenly all pace and purposeful movement. In one typically precise passage, Lee Hendrie and Dion Dublin combined to set up Riccardo Scimeca for a scoring chance he skied from the right edge of the Middlesbrough penalty area. Schwarzer also tipped over a Dublin header after the England man rose to meet a Hendrie free kick but Villa, for all their slick play, were unable to take a stranglehold. Indeed, as half-time approached, it was Boro who gained the upper hand.

Five minutes before the interval Curtis Fleming hoisted a right-wing cross and Michael Oakes could only punch the ball out to Dean Gordon, whose first-time shot was cleared by Gareth Southgate on the goal-line. Two minutes later the backpedalling Oakes struggled to tip over a shot by Hamilton Ricard. It was a frustrating time for Boro, though there was no excuse for Paul Gascoigne following through a robust challenge on Hendrie with a forearm smash. He was fortunate to escape with only a booking, his 10th of the season, though Robson protested: "It should never have been a booking. You sometimes get hit when you're tackled. it's inevitable."

Just one caution away from his third suspension of the season, Gascoigne made the most of the second half, prompting his colleagues from deep in midfield. Villa were on the defensive for much of the half, though with Ugo Ehiogu outstanding they managed to stand firm. They did so with the unwitting help of an old boy. Unmarked 15 yards from goal, Andy Townsend, one-time Villan, skied the best chance of the afternoon.