Football: Villa fans asked to hold fire on Yorke

WHEN DWIGHT YORKE defected from Aston Villa to Manchester United, John Gregory said he could have shot him. As the Villa manager prepared the Premiership leaders for tomorrow's visit of second-placed United, he appealed for supporters to hold their verbal fire until Yorke became a legitimate target at kick-off time.

Responding to a call from the Villa fanzine, Heroes & Villans, to give the pounds 12.6m striker "the silent treatment", Gregory said: "It's out of order to suggest that people totally ignore Dwight. I hope he gets a standing ovation from our fans because he deserves it. It's their first chance to thank him for everything he did for Villa. Then at three o'clock he becomes the enemy again."

Gregory has declined to retract his remark about "shooting" Yorke, believing he would not be true to himself if he did, but insists there is "nothing to heal" between them. "It was just how I felt at the time. I was hurt that he didn't want to play for Villa, though I still have the utmost admiration for him as a player."

Indeed, Yorke and Andy Cole would have been lining up against United if Gregory's plans had come to fruition. They had, he admitted, been his "dream team" for Villa's attack. "It's an outstanding partnership. Andy's the out-and-out No 9, Dwight's the one who brings others into the game. The goal the two of them created for Cole in Barcelona was phenomenal - it could very well end up being my goal of the season."

Both teams are leaking goals more freely than is customary for championship contenders, Villa having conceded 16 in six games. "Fortunately we're scoring a few too," said Gregory, "but so are United. I saw them last Sunday and they looked as though they might score every time they went forward. Then again, Leeds looked like scoring a few as well. So it could be a 9-9 thriller on Saturday."

Paul Merson, substituted with acute back pain during Villa's 2-2 draw at Nottingham Forest, trained normally yesterday but is unlikely to be risked against United. "We'll have to see how he reacts," Gregory said. "That's the problem: he can train OK, then it's agony the next day. We've got to be careful not to do any permanent damage.

"Paul saw a specialist this week and we don't think he is going to need surgery. But we were also told that if we hammer him over the busy Christmas programme, we could suffer the consequences because he might end up needing an operation."