Football: Villa hope to turn back clock

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The Independent Online
AS JOHN GREGORY reflected on the first anniversary of his appointment as Aston Villa manager this week, a tantalising prospect opened. If his players can only repeat what they did last season, then a championship could be theirs.

Gregory arrived as Mr Who? on 25 February 1998 but his identity was forged by a run-in that yielded 27 from a possible 33 points. Twelve months on, a similar ratio from the last 12 games would have Villa there or thereabouts at the top of the Premiership in May. At the very least, it would earn them qualification for the Champions' League.

On the basis of what you have done before you can do again, the prospect is not daunting and, on paper, the task looks easier. Gregory was confronted by a demoralised squad that had lost successive games and were in 15th place when he arrived from Wycombe with his resuscitation kit. Fifteen points better off this time around from one game fewer, the patient is positively sprightly in comparison.

And yet, paradoxically, he is facing possibly the most difficult time at Villa Park as confidence ebbs away. Young players, such as Gareth Barry and Lee Hendrie, have looked jaded, more experienced bodies have either been off form or injured, while Stan Collymore is depressed. One point from four games has detached them from the leading pack and not lightened the mood.

Today they meet Coventry, who arguably contributed as much as anyone to Brian Little's departure and Gregory's arrival last February by winning their first ever game at Villa Park. They are troubled by relegation worries, Villa are just troubled, and a West Midlands derby that is never noted for its genteel air ought to be just a little robust this afternoon.

"We've got to get our season on track," Gareth Southgate, the Villa captain, said. "Things could go either way now so it's a vitally important game. We've had long discussions round the dinner table at the training ground and we have a fair idea of what has to be done to put things right. But the most basic thing is that we have to start keeping clean sheets again. That was our strength at the start of the season and that's why we were top of the table. It's no coincidence since we have not been as solid that we've been slipping."

Gregory adopted a back four against Wimbledon on Sunday to allow Barry a much-needed break and may forgo the sweeper system again. The versatile Dion Dublin is an option in defence, although he will be anxious to play up front, his groin injury willing, against the team who sold him to Villa for pounds 5.75m in November.

"Last Sunday was a start in stopping the rot," Southgate said, "and we're only a few points away from a Champions' League spot. No side is pulling away massively. There is a determination not to let the season just slip away."

On the subject of rot elimination, Charlton could rival Rentokil at the moment, as three successive wins have promoted them out of the relegation places for the first time in 10 weeks. Today they meet the Premiership's whipping boys, Nottingham Forest, at The Valley and for the first time in a long while they will begin a game as favourites.

Charlton's success has coincided with a more circumspect attitude, as their midfield player Keith Jones explained. "In the Premier League the first goal is all important," he said. "You can't afford to give it away early. We're learning to keep things tight, to spoil things a bit and hit teams on the break.

"Wins are so hard to come by at this level, so if you get three on the trot it makes a substantial difference. That's why the Forest match is so important to both clubs. They are running out of games, so for them it will be all or nothing."

Everton, Blackburn and Southampton are also being confronted by do-or- die situations and, of the three, the Merseysiders appear to have the easiest task today: a home game against Wimbledon. Even that has provisos, as the visitors have lost only one of their six Premiership visits to Goodison.

Brian Kidd, who rivalled King Midas with one defeat in his first 13 games as Blackburn manager, is back to base metal after successive defeats and an injury list that amounts to pounds 30m in unused talent. A point today at West Ham is the least he requires.

Southampton, meanwhile, will hope that a good home record against Manchester United can be transported to Old Trafford. Precedent does not encourage them, however, as they have won only once in their last 25 League visits there. Still, with Matt Le Tissier fit again and with home minds bound to be wandering to Wednesday's European Cup quarter-final against Internazionale, anything is possible.