Football: Stone rolls Villa's way for pounds 5.5m

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JOHN GREGORY took his transfer outlay towards the pounds 30m mark in barely 12 months as Aston Villa manager last night when he paid Nottingham Forest pounds 5.5m for Steve Stone.

But Gregory's interest in further bolstering his midfield with George Boateng's combative talents has led to Coventry City reporting Villa to the Football Association for allegedly making an illegal approach to the Dutchman via his former team-mate Dion Dublin.

After concluding the Stone deal, the Villa manager said: "I'm delighted to have got Steve for our last 10 games, and I hope he's going to help to turn our season round. He's quick, gets around the park well and can play in any position across the middle. It's a situation we've monitored for a long time and I thought me might have to wait until the summer."

Stone, who won nine England caps during Terry Venables' reign, has exchanged seemingly certain relegation with Forest for Villa's attempt to halt a run of one point from six matches, which has taken them from the Premiership summit to fifth place. He spent 12 years in the east Midlands after arriving as a teenager during the Brian Clough era, making his final appearance in Wednesday's defeat by Newcastle.

Villa originally tried to offload Stan Collymore to Forest in part-exchange for Stone, but the controversial striker, who is under treatment for clinical depression, would not return to the City Ground. The 27-year-old Stone, whose contract with Villa takes him through to the summer of 2003, follows Dublin (pounds 5.75m), Paul Merson (pounds 6.75m), Alan Thompson (pounds 4.5m) and Steve Watson (pounds 4.2m) - the latter duo being fellow Geordies - as the major signings since Gregory arrived in February last year.

Gregory, who recouped pounds 12.6m in one transfer alone when Dwight Yorke defected to Manchester United, has seen his lack of squad depth exposed by injuries and illness during Villa's recent poor run of form. A pounds 4.5m offer for Alan Stubbs was turned down by Celtic, while he has not followed up his interest in Bradford's Robbie Blake with a bid.

Villa were, however, successful in landing Cardiff's Mark Delaney for pounds 500,000 this week. While the rookie right back will not be risked against David Ginola at Tottenham tomorrow, Stone will make his debut as Gregory seeks to ensure that his team do not miss out on a Uefa Cup place.

Gregory refused to comment on claims by the Coventry chairman, Bryan Richardson, that Dublin, the Sky Blues' former captain, may have been used to sound out the pounds 3m-rated Boateng about a possible move to Villa Park.

Richardson said: "We have clear evidence of an illegal approach to Boateng and his agent on behalf of John Gregory and Aston Villa. We have reported Villa to the FA and the Premier League for a clear breach of all the rules, and a clearly illegal approach to the player with a view to unsettling him - which they have.

"Villa have shown a total disregard for FA rules and we intend to pursue the matter most vigorously. I am not having Boateng stolen from us or unsettled by any other club."

Coventry contend that only after Villa's alleged approach did Gregory contact his opposite number, Gordon Strachan, who told him Boateng was not for sale. The Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, is then said to have phoned Richardson with an offer, which was also rejected, and Villa were warned not to contact either the player or his advisor.

Strachan said Villa's interest had turned Boateng, a pounds 250,000 capture from Feyenoord, from "a very happy young man" to one who was "confused". But he said he had been "absolutely excellent" in training and would play in the home game against Blackburn tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Villa's goalkeeper Mark Bosnich last night told how Stan Collymore's Aston Villa team-mates were kept in the dark over the troubled striker's off-field problems. Collymore's depression, which has been treated at a clinic, came to light when Villa played Fulham in a fourth round FA Cup tie in January.

Bosnich said the players asked for information about Collymore's problems - "but it was not forthcoming."

"He [Collymore] could have told us and he wanted to talk to us, but he was under instructions not to. He told us all he has a certain problem and he didn't want to discuss it further and that was the end of the matter. The boys on the whole appreciated that," Bosnich said.

Collymore's off-field problems have coincided with a dramatic slump in form for Villa who have declined from championship hopefuls to fifth place having taken one point from 18.

n BSkyB should know by April 13 if they can take over Manchester United. That is the latest date by which the Department of Trade and Industry must publish the Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigation into the takeover. The MMC will submit their conclusions to the DTI today, which then has 20 working days to publish the report.

Stone sheds troubles, page 30