Football: Villa are short of the golden touch

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Wednesday are the dark horses, moving up at the gallop after 12 wins in 14 games, but the first three show no real sign of flagging, and the championship race will again boil down to which of the runners and riders keep their nerve in the final furlong.

The simplistic theory that the best team will always come out on top was holed 12 months ago, when Manchester United's fit of the vapours saw the title lost rather than won. If Leeds United really were the better side, how are we to explain what has happened since?

The notion that the finest team always win the League is more trite than true. It is usually the case, of course. But there are exceptions. For the best part of a decade, under Don Revie, Leeds were clearly the best, yet burdened by Revie's doubts and persecution mania, they won the title just twice.

The fatal flaw in the supposition that football's cream automatically rises to the top is that it takes no account of managerial shortcomings. Or strengths.

Leeds are the perfect example. Revie showed that a negative- minded manager, afraid of losing, can undermine the very best. Howard Wilkinson, on the other hand, demonstrated last season that shrewd and inventive marshalling of limited resources will sometimes enable a workmanlike side to outmanoeuvre or outlast a better one.

To bring the argument up to date, Aston Villa stand two points clear of Manchester United at the top of the Premier League, but are they really the better team? I think not. Whether they have the better manager, and will prevail for that reason, we are about to discover.

Villa and United both won on Saturday, by the same margin

(2-1) and at home to opponents of roughly similar calibre (Everton and Southampton respectively), but the crucial difference is easily identifiable, and was pointed up nicely by Match of the Day.

Ron Atkinson's present team is the equal of his old one in defence and midfield, but they have no Ryan Giggs who, for the second weekend in succession, leapt out of the screen as a coruscating talent. The fact that United possess the outstanding forward of his generation (and those comparisons with the Best seem less fanciful by the week) should give them a decisive edge. All things being equal.

Fortunately for Villa, Norwich and the pursuing pack, all things are not - as was shown last season, when Alex Ferguson's pounds 15m team, the emerging Giggs included, won only one of their last five games to hobble in second.

The manager, who bravely took the blame then, would be unlikely to survive a repeat.

Atkinson knows all about the pressures of management at Old Trafford but, having taken Villa to the top, his stock has rarely been higher, and he was in gag-a- minute form on Saturday night.

Deadpan, he told us he was 'really glad' that United and Norwich had also won, 'because it makes it so exciting'. Pull the other one? All right: 'I was really upset when I heard United were losing with a few minutes left.'

He can afford to laugh, his popularity such that when he went on local television and radio to drum up support, the response exceeded all expectations.

Puzzled and worried by dwindling attendances, Villa paid pounds 10,000 to advertise Saturday's match and needed a gate of 27,000 - up 2,000 on the previous home game - to justify the campaign. They got 32,913, moving the chairman, Doug Ellis, to liken Atkinson to Lord 'Your Country Needs You' Kitchener.

Barry Kitchener, the old Millwall dreadnought, would be nearer the mark, but any praise from 'Deadly' Doug, however extravagant, is not to be sniffed at.

The improved crowd went away happy enough, but Villa missed out on a golden chance to have them all back next Saturday, when Wimbledon are the visitors, begging for more.

Everton are in dire straits, having spent money for nothing, and after going 2-0 down in 17 minutes they should have had a real hiding. Their tactical deployment was woeful, leaving the ageing Kenny Sansom unsupported on the left, where Earl Barrett, quick and eager, was too much for him. Barrett, doing himself no harm before an appreciative Graham Taylor, made the first goal for Neil Cox and scored the second himself, from an improbable angle on the right.

Two-nil up, Villa were doing much as they pleased, but Everton were shaken out of their moribund state by an ill-deserved penalty, when Sansom took an unconvincing tumble under Ray Houghton's challenge, and the landslide failed to materialise.

Instead, Sansom cleared off the line from Dwight Yorke, Dean Saunders shot against a post and Jason Kearton, who had made a dodgy start to his first full appearance, atoned with a top-class save from Stefan Beinlich, another foreigner given his first start.

Kearton, understudying the suspended Neville Southall, and one of two Australian goalkeepers in the same game (a first?), was fortunate to escape ordeal by penalty when Cox was bowled over by Mo Johnston.

The penalty decisions were by no means the only bad ones by a poor referee, who provoked an unnecessary scuffle by booking Shaun Teale for a touchline foul on Stuart Barlow, then allowing Saunders to take a quick throw-in instead of the statutory free-kick.

Barlow, quick in thought and deed, was such an improvement after his introduction that he should surely have been on from the start, in preference to the invisible Johnston. After four successive defeats, Everton are in trouble, and need all the youthful enthusiasm they can muster.

Earlier in the season, Howard Kendall was insisting that they were not far away from a championship side. Thirty-five miles would be about right. And Villa? Seventy-one inches. The 5ft 11in of Ryan Giggs.

Goals: Cox (11) 1-0; Barrett (17) 2-0; Beardsley pen (24) 2-1.

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Cox, Saunders, Yorke, Beinlich. Substitutes not used: Regis, Small, Spink (gk).

Everton: Kearton; Jackson, Sansom, Snodin, Watson, Ablett, Warzycha (Barlow, 50), Beardsley, Cottee, Johnston (Radosavljevic, 74), Horne. Substitute not used: Reeves (gk).

Referee: A Ward (London).