Football: Sorry Albion surrender without a fight

Aston Villa 4 West Bromwich Albion 0
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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 4 West Bromwich Albion 0

The talk among early arrivals in Villa Park's media suite was of Savo Milosevic. An Aston Villa insider revealed that the errant Serb was about to join West Bromwich Albion. Why on earth, we gullibly exclaimed as one, would he want to do that? "Well," said the informant, keeping a straight face, "they are within spitting distance".

Not on Saturday, they weren't. Villa and Albion may be only a few miles apart as the crow flies, but the team lying seventh in the First Division proved to be a country mile behind the Premiership's 13th-placed side when it came to contesting a place in the FA Cup's last 16.

Sadly, Albion were not alone among the would-be giantkillers in discovering that the fourth round - not unlike the third - had precious little to do with romance. It has come to something when "day of shocks" refers to Cardiff, of the Third Division, drawing with Reading, from the First; or to Crystal Palace actually winning at home against Premiership opposition.

Only time will tell whether the inability of the lower-division hopefuls - from perennially humble Walsall and Grimsby to the better-off likes of Huddersfield and West Brom - to force a replay between them is part of a pattern. The worry must be that it is indicative of a widening gap in revenue and resources between the haves and the have-nots.

On the equivalent day 10 years ago, Tottenham went out to Port Vale, then fighting relegation to the old Fourth Division. At the same stage in 1978, Walsall and Wrexham dumped Leicester and Newcastle respectively, while Blyth Spartans won at Stoke. Going back a further decade, Walsall held Bill Shankly's Liverpool 0-0 rather than being patronised for playing so openly.

The feeling that Albion might buck the trend was based less on favourable impressions of their form under a new manager, Denis Smith, than on the perception that Villa were in danger of disintegrating. The 5-0 defeat at Blackburn had been followed by the transfer-listing of Milosevic for spitting at the supporters and by pages of scathing letters in the local press.

Brian Little, previously regarded as one of their own, was variously criticised for buying not one but two striking enigmas in Milosevic and Stan Collymore, and for playing Dwight Yorke deeper to accommodate them.

Having dropped Milosevic, who then jetted off to join the Yugoslavia squad, the Villa manager had no option other than to pair Collymore and Yorke for the first time since September.

Albion's optimism lasted three and a half minutes, in which time it was already apparent that Villa's troubles were more likely to work in their favour than Albion's. Ironically, it was Simon Grayson, frequently cited during the week as typifying Little's sub-standard signings, who added to his vital strike at Portsmouth in the previous round. Suddenly, the pressure was no longer on Villa.

The flurry with which their front two finished the job in a one-sided second half might suggest that they were irresistible. The truth is that Albion (beaten at home by Crewe a week earlier) were so bereft of penetration, so timid in the tackle and so sluggish in movement and thought that Yorke and Collymore were able to help themselves in a way no self-respecting Premiership defence would permit.

Even so, circumstances may not look propitious for Milosevic to win his place back. Little may, in fact, need him as early as next Sunday. Villa have yet to receive confirmation from Trinidad and Tobago that Yorke can delay his arrival to play in a tournament in order to face Newcastle.

Another factor in favour of some sort of rapprochement is that the previous day is the deadline for registering players to be eligible for the quarter- finals of the Uefa Cup. Unless he has a replacement lined up, Little could leave himself short of attacking options against Atletico Madrid by offloading Milosevic now.

Without pretending that the player has justified the pounds 3.5m Little lavished on him, or attempting to mitigate his boorishness at Blackburn, it should be said that Milosevic has been one of Villa's better performers this season.

A return of four goals disguises a greater appreciation of team play than Collymore shows. And three of those goals have been match-winners, one keeping Villa in Europe against Bordeaux and another taking them past Pompey to earn this derby.

In contrast, Collymore's five (from more games) have all come when games were comfortably won and the opposition deflated. For all Saturday's improvement, he is nowhere near to justifying Little's pounds 7m outlay. While it would be a cheap shot to suggest that he was playing at his true level against Albion, it would be hard to imagine him facing feebler defending this season.

If the feeling persists that Villa's progress in cup competitions is merely papering over the cracks, where does that leave Albion and First Division standards? This surrender must have been dreadfully galling for Smith, whose ferocious commitment as a centre-back used to be measured in broken bones, although it hardly helped that his declared 4-3-3 formation resembled 4-5-1 in practice.

The Hawthorns crowd, like their counterparts at Wolves, see the club as traditional members of the game's elite. Unless and until they find pounds 20m to spend on new players, they might be better off where they are.

As their 6,000 following slunk away, the Holte End taunted them with a chorus of "We'll meet again". The same may yet be true of Milosevic.

Goals: Grayson (4) 1-0; Yorke (61) 2-0; Yorke (64) 3-0; Collymore (72) 4-0.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton (Charles, 41), Southgate; Grayson, Draper, Taylor, Hendrie, Wright; Yorke, Collymore. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Nelson, D Hughes, Oakes (gk).

West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Miller; Holmes, Murphy, Dobson, Nicholson; L Hughes (Coldicott, 78), Sneekes, Butler (Evans, 69), Hamilton (Flynn, 78), Kilbane; Hunt. Substitutes not used: Burgess, Crichton (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Villa Taylor. WBA: Butler, Nicholson.

Attendance: 39,372.

Man of the match: Yorke.