Football: The boy Dunn good

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Aston Villa 1

Joachim 69

Blackburn Rovers 3

Southgate og 32, Ward 62, Dunn 64

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 37,404

IT'S not so much the bang of a high-speed blow-out, more the hiss of a slow puncture; but there is a growing concern among some Villa folk that the air is seeping out of their tyres. Comfortably beaten by a fast- reinflating Blackburn side, they have now dropped eight points out of 12 in 1999 and, with so many key engine components missing, it's becoming increasingly difficult for them to drive the right title line.

This defeat - Villa's third in a row - means that they have slipped out of the top three for the first time since August. Whereas, until recently, the Holte End dared to dream of winning the title, even a European place could now be tough to achieve.

Rovers, on the other hand, are beginning to make light of their early- season problems and, driven with fervour by Brian Kidd, they are moving fluidly through the field. This was their first away win of the season; they have still lost just one of 11 games under Kidd's stewardship; at this rate they will soon be lapping the same tail-enders whose company they were, until recently, reluctantly keeping.

Right from the start, the portents for Rovers were good. Although they, like Villa, had half-a-dozen notable absentees, their problems were more than amply balanced by the uplifting return of Chris Sutton. He had scored a hat-trick at Villa Park last season and had been missing since Boxing Day when Rovers had won... also against Villa. Sutton's muscular ball-holding and nimble manoeuvrability created snags for a Villa defence, the absence of Ugo Ehiogu from which was achingly apparent.

Even Ehiogu though, would have been stretched to deny Rovers the goal with which they freakishly broke through. Surviving on less than their fair share of possession for much of the first quarter the visitors located their bright-spark teenager David Dunn tight to the right-hand touchline. His cross into the corridor of Villa's defensive uncertainty seemed to scramble the senses of Gareth Southgate and, with an uncharacteristically meek glancing header, the England centre-half found his own net.

And Southgate completed a miserable day when he ruled himself out of England's prestigious friendly with world champions France on Wednesday with a hip injury.

"He's headed 3,000 of those away this season," said Southgate's puzzled manager John Gregory, unable to explain the aberration.

Villa never recovered from the own-goal blow. Indeed, any remaining hope of recovery had been effectively erased by the midway point of the second half, two goals in three minutes settling the issue.

First, Chris Sutton - "his very presence in the side is a lift to everyone in the club," said Kidd - bolted away from Ricardo Scimeca and laid on Ashley Ward's first goal since his pounds 4.5m arrival from Barnsley. Of Scimeca's failure to repel Sutton, Gregory said, "Tony Adams would have put it in the back of the stand and then worried about the throw-in." Scimeca may appreciate the comparison; Gregory will be keen that he has learned the lesson.

With their next attack, Rovers went further ahead. Matt Jansen's cross was headed out only to Dunn whose low, firm drive earned him a first-ever senior goal.

Villa, whose spirit and drive were laudably undimmed by their predicament, had had their moments too; but Rovers remained forthright at the back. Marlon Broomes produced courageous goal-line blocks either side of half- time and John Filan enhanced his burgeoning reputation with another great goal-keeping display.

Confirming that he had received a written transfer request from England goalkeeper Tim Flowers, Kidd reinforced his view that he had two first- class keepers and fully understood Flower's feelings. On this form though Filan is undroppable.

Julian Joachim did strike back for Villa and in the 20 helter-skelter minutes that remained, Villa might have dragged back something more.

But it wasn't to be. Kidd advised sympathetically that, even at Old Trafford, Villa still would be taken seriously in the title race, Gregory concurred that surrender, at this early stage, would be unthinkable. But if it does remain a four-horse race, Villa are this morning surely fourth favourites.