Football: Torment continues for besieged Gregory

Aston Villa 0 Newcastle United 1
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Bobby Robson had managed a team to an away victory in English League football, 18 seasons ago, Aston Villa were the reigning champions. The wait endured by John Gregory's latter day Villans is short by comparison - their barren run was extended to nine Premiership matches by Newcastle - but it is beginning to feel like years.

Robson, whose Ipswich side were pipped for the title by the claret and blue class of '81, was a model of managerial solidarity after Newcastle clambered over Villa towards mid-table. Unfortunately for Gregory, his immediate job prospects are not a matter for the paternal figure who once picked him for England. They are the prerogative of another grey eminence whose presence hung over Villa Park like a shadow - "Deadly" Doug Ellis.

The Villa chairman's patience is notoriously finite. Gregory implicitly acknowledged as much by describing the fixture against bottom-placed Sheffield Wednesday, a week next Saturday, as "as important as it could possibly get". In fact, by the standards Ellis set when dispensing with Ron Atkinson five years ago, he has already shown untypical tolerance. Even before Wednesday's visit, Villa face ties in both cup competitions, at home to Darlington and at West Ham respectively. Were they to lose to the FA Cup's "wild card" entrants this weekend - not quite as unlikely as it originally seemed given their fragile confidence and feeble form - Gregory would almost certainly not be around to pit his wits against Danny Wilson.

The Third Division club's spy will have reported back that Villa are bereft of imagination and variation in midfield. He would also have noted that their attacking ideas run the gamut from A to B; launching long balls on the off chance that Julian Joachim's pace will panic defenders or hoping that Dion Dublin's aerial prowess will prevail at a set-piece.

Nor are these temporary aberrations. Villa have now lost twice as many Premiership games as they have won in 1999, during which they average a point per match. Translate that to a complete campaign and they could be playing Wigan and Gillingham in the Nationwide League come next August.

That is the prospect which Ellis, who is acutely conscious of Villa's need to be one of the game's big financial players, may even now be weighing against the memory of Gregory's hugely impressive first 10 months in charge. Newcastle have hardly looked back since dismissing Ruud Gullit when their stock - and Stock Exchange credibility - slumped similarly and drastically.

The Dutchman had lost the dressing-room, to use the sporting vernacular, whereas Gregory insists that the spirit remains strong at Villa. However, his recent suggestion that Ugo Ehiogu might be malingering, not to mention his ensuing criticism of "whingers" within the camp, did not appear a calculated manner to foster harmony between management and players.

Ironically, it was one of Gullit's more questionable signings, the pounds 7m Duncan Ferguson bought from Everton, who turned the game Robson's way. Not just with his first domestic goal in 372 days, a header from Temuri Ketsbaia's cross eight minutes after leaving the bench, but through his obvious empathy with Alan Shearer. Already ahead in the self-belief stakes, Newcastle defended their first away success since April with a conviction which belied their lowly status.

True, they had not mustered a single effort on target until Franck Dumas' easily saved attempt to score from 60 yards a la David Beckham shortly before the hour. And they did not trouble David James thereafter, from which Gregory can take a smidgen of solace. By the same token, Villa only once looked likely to equalise. Steve Harper saved brilliantly from Benito Carbone's 85th-minute header and the game was up.

By a further twist, the only outstanding performance of a mediocre match came from Rob Lee, the player to whom Robson's predecessor would not even allocate a squad number. As well as anchoring Newcastle's midfield, he showed an incredible passing range which no one in Villa's engine room could match. All the more puzzling then, that Mark Draper's playmaking skills did not merit so much as a place among the substitutes.

Barely a year ago, Draper was a fixture in the side whose feats led to Gregory being hailed as a future England manager. The impact Gregory made then, not least on the boardroom, has probably earned him breathing space which Villa did not allow Atkinson et al. Maybe Ellis has heard about the bright young manager hastily sacked from his first job, at Fulham three decades ago. Bobby Robson has not done too badly since.

Goal: Ferguson (65) 0-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Calderwood, Southgate, Barry; Delaney, Boateng, Taylor, Hendrie (Thompson, 9; Merson, 73), Wright; Joachim, Dublin (Carbone, 52). Substitutes not used: Stone, Enckelman (gk).

Newcastle United (3-5-2): Harper; Dabizas, Dumas, Helder; Solano (Barton, 87), Maric (Ferguson, 57), Lee, Speed, Pistone; Shearer, Ketsbaia (Hughes, 84). Substitutes not used: Glass, Given (gk).

Bookings: Aston Villa: Boateng, Delaney, Thompson, Wright. Newcastle United: Helder, Dabizas, Speed.

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Man of the match: Lee

Attendance: 34,531.

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