Football: Villa are close to signing Saunders

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ASTON VILLA and Liverpool were yesterday still pounds 200,000 apart in their valuation of Dean Saunders, the 28-year-old Welsh international striker. Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager, has offered pounds 2.1m but admitted last night: 'I don't know what is going on.'

Saunders moved to Anfield for pounds 2.9m in 1991 and Liverpool are trying to minimise their loss over a record signing who scored only 10 League goals last season. Atkinson, an astute operator for Villa in the transfer market, is still expected to seal the deal which reunites Saunders with his former Liverpool team-mates, Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton, and break Villa's transfer record.

If Saunders is registered by tomorrow lunchtime he will be eligible for Villa's home game against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Liverpool will need the millions they receive for Saunders if they are to secure the considerable services of Craig Short, Notts County's pounds 2.5m-rated centre-half. Graeme Souness, the Liverpool manager, watched Short score at Derby County last night in the Anglo-Italian Cup but knows he faces stiff competition from an Anfield predecessor, Kenny Dalglish. Blackburn Rovers, who Dalglish is rebuilding with a seemingly bottomless wallet, are known to be interested in Short.

Another promising centre-half playing in the First Division, Portsmouth's Andy Awford, has ended speculation that he might leave Fratton Park by signing a two-year contract.

Pompey's 20-year-old captain, who awakened the interest of the leading clubs with his mature performances during this year's FA Cup run, said: 'I still have a lot to learn. I have been a regular for only a season and I need a couple more before I can consider anything else.'

Trevor Steven, the Rangers midfielder, yesterday withdrew from the England squad to face Spain in next week's friendly in Santander. Steven has been struggling with a hamstring injury.

Sam Hammam, the owner of Palace's tenants, Wimbledon, yesterday rejected rumours that the two clubs might be close to merging. 'This will never happen,' Hammam said. Despite the desperately low gates, which forces the Dons to sell their best players, they will retain their identity.

'Personally I take special pride in our low gates and in the fact that we have and will continue to fight against the odds. This we will continue to do as long as we are supported by one person. We would sooner play in the lowest league than merge with anyone.'

ITV yesterday completed a deal with Uefa, the game's governing body in Europe, to televise the round-robin stage of the European Cup, now known as the Champions League. If Leeds United and Rangers progress to the last eight, ITV will show their matches live; if they falter, then it will be only a highlights package.

Newcastle beat Luton 2-0 at St James' Park in the First Division last night to equal an 84-year record with their fourth consecutive League win at the start of a season. Lee Clark and David Kelly scored in the first half.

West Ham drew 2-2 with Bristol Rovers in the Anglo-Italian Cup before Upton Park's lowest senior crowd for 37 years - 4,809.

Ally McCoist took his Rangers goal tally past the 250 mark with a second-half hat-trick as the champions surged to the top of the Scottish Premier Division with a 4-1 win at Motherwell.