Football: Villa finally rediscover self-belief

Phil Shaw says the Midlanders can draw much heart from the manner of their Uefa Cup elimination
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TALK about a fine line separating success from failure. In the quarter-final analysis, only the tips of a Spanish goalkeeper's gloves stood between Aston Villa and a place in the last four of a European competition for the first time in 16 years.

Elimination from the Uefa Cup, with Jose Molina's crucial late save from Lee Hendrie squeezing Atletico Madrid through on the away-goals rule, effectively ended Villa's season. Yet there was much in their 2-1 win on the night to hearten John Gregory as he plans for 1998-99 and beyond.

Stan Collymore, the most conspicuous success, spoke for all connected with Villa when he remarked that the European run had restored the players' self-belief. He added, perhaps a trifle richly given his modest form since Brian Little lavished pounds 7m on him, that the new manager's priority now should be to raid the market.

"We need to add a couple of players to the squad if we're going to get back into Europe next season and start pushing for the League. We need more quality in depth," Collymore said. "If we can do that we can achieve what we set out to do this season."

While Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman, has promised that funds are available, the logic behind Gregory's appointment was that the club did not need a major rebuilding job, merely someone simultaneously fresh and familiar to bring out the qualities already present.

During Gregory's three-week crash course, in which they have all but secured their Premiership status, wins against Liverpool and now Spain's "third force" have done much to suggest that the change has had the desired effect.

A measure of the transformation can be gauged from the fact that the last seven League fixtures under Little produced a solitary success and saw Villa turfed out of the FA Cup by Coventry on their own ground.

As often happens when there is a change at the top, certain under-achievers are suddenly living up to their potential. Collymore, for one, has gone from lethargic to lethal almost overnight.

Watched by England's assistant coach, John Gorman, he scored the winner as he did on his previous appearance, against Liverpool. More pertinently for Villa's long-term prospects, he panicked Atletico's previously imperious defence with his strength and shooting power after coming on in the second half.

Hendrie, a peripheral figure during Little's reign, has also blossomed since receiving a sustained run. Steve Staunton, meanwhile, has demonstrated class and versatility that will give him increased bargaining power when Villa attempt to dissuade him from leaving when his contract expires during the summer.

Gregory will use the remaining seven matches to assess whether the squad he inherited, and indeed coached until 17 months ago, are capable of producing this form on a consistent basis. Players who perform only on high-profile occasions will, one suspects, be given short shrift.