Football: Villa fired up by McGrath

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Aston Villa. . . . 3

Sheffield United. .1

AFTER Gazza's expensive belch there were long periods last night when it appeared that 20,266 spectators at Villa Park were going to witness a costly hiccup by Aston Villa.

Ron Atkinson's side, often out- manoevered during a strangely bloodless first half, scored twice in four minutes soon after the interval through Paul McGrath and Dean Saunders. With 16 minutes left Brian Deane struck the goal lowly Sheffield United had threatened earlier on, only for Kevin Richardson to restore the two- goal margin in the closing seconds.

Villa thus completed a fourth consecutive Premier League victory and a third successive double. Until they went in front, though, the assurance of their recent wins at Anfield and at home to Middlesbrough was conspicuously lacking.

There is no doubt that they are missing the injured Dalian Atkinson. Heaven help them if they lose McGrath.

The 33-year-old Irish international is no longer content with being the best defender in these islands; he is now popping in the goals too. McGrath's deadlock- breaker was his second in four matches, and he also had a hand, or rather a head in Villa's second - a contribution singled out by Ron Atkinson.

'I knew at half-time we had to get our act together,' the Villa manager said. 'We ripped them apart after that, and McGrath alone could have had a hat-trick. We might have finished with seven or eight goals.'

Alan Kelly, who may shortly be guarding the Republic's goal behind McGrath, had to be at his agile best in the second half, but Villa would be unwise to get carried away.

Missing the injured Ray Houghton, they had few ideas as to how to breach United's off-side trap in the opening 45 minutes, when Jamie Hoyland and Franz Carr both missed good chances.

In the second half Villa were a team transformed, even if their first two goals were untidy affairs. In the 54th minute a free-kick by Matthias Breitkreutz was touched on by Steve Staunton to McGrath, whose volley into the turf reared up and over Kelly.

Another set-piece promptly produced another goal. McGrath and Brian Gayle rose together for Garry Parker's corner, which was diverted to Saunders lurking beyond the back post. His stunning overhead kick drew a fine save from Kelly, but the ball struck the covering Chris Kamara in the stomach and went in for what was technically an own goal.

Dwight Yorke then hit a post as Villa began to dominate. However, Deane pegged them back with his 14th goal of the season, side-footing in a Glyn Hodges cross.

With United seeking an equaliser, Neil Cox sent Richardson clear and the home captain slipped the third goal past Kelly in a manner reminiscent of the last Villa skipper to lift the championship trophy, Dennis Mortimer. Whether the similarity will end there is the burning question.

Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Breitkreutz (Cox, 80), Parker, Saunders, Yorke (Beinlich, 75), Small. Substitute not used: Oakes (gk).

Sheffield United: Kelly; Gage, Barnes, Hoyland, Gayle, Beesley, Carr (Bradshaw, 81), Hartfield (Cork, 61), Kamara, Deane, Hodges. Substitute not used: Rees (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).