Football: Villa step reluctantly into the spotlight
Monday 14 September 1998
NO DWIGHT YORKE, no Stan Collymore. Yet Aston Villa lead the Premiership after taking 13 points from their opening five matches. Some contrast from last season, when by this stage they had only three points, stood 19th in the table and Brian Little's future as manager was already being questioned.
Naturally, after watching their team repeatedly under-achieve lately, Holte Enders now see exciting visions of a season in which Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and the rest are the also-rans. Naturally, John Gregory plays down such notions. He confessed to finding it all "a bit scary".
"The expectation level is going to go up another notch after this and we have to see if we can deal with that," he said. "As they come along, every game will take on greater importance because we want to stay where we are. It is going to make it that much harder for us over the next few weeks."
Gregory admits he had rather enjoyed being unnoticed. Although Villa have an extraordinary record under his management - 13 wins, one draw and two defeats in the 16 matches since he took over from Little in February - their form has not, until now, been widely appreciated.
Last season, Villa won nine of their last 11 matches, but given that they started the run in 15th place it was not until they sneaked into the Uefa Cup by finishing seventh that it was acknowledged that their form over the last 10 weeks of the season had been better than anyone's.
But now they have extended the sequence by another four wins out of five, there is nowhere to hide. The dark horses are exposed and even Gregory does not know whether they can live with that exposure.
"We have kept out of the spotlight and got on with our jobs," he said. "Since Dwight Yorke left the club we have blended into the background and that has suited us quite nicely."
Villa have a test looming at Leeds next week but the real measure of their ability to sustain a meaningful challenge will not come until November and December, when they face Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive home games before Christmas.
They were helped on Saturday by the generosity of referee David Elleray, who awarded them two penalties before half-time. Neither was converted but the second led to a goal anyway, Paul Merson putting away the rebound after his own kick had been parried by Neil Sullivan.
It gave the former Middlesbrough forward, for whom Gregory paid pounds 6.75m last week, something to crow about on what was otherwise a fairly quiet debut and saved the manager from potential embarrassment after Alan Thompson had driven the first one wide.
Thompson missed against Middlesbrough last month but was so impressive, apparently, in a spot-kick practice session on Friday that Gregory insisted he should take any penalties given, even though Lee Hendrie had scored a decisive one against Newcastle last Wednesday. Merson insisted on taking the second himself.
Wimbledon were happy with neither decision, especially since the second led to Carl Leaburn being sent off after pulling down Ugo Ehiogu. Because of a colour clash, David Elleray, the referee, had to run the game wearing a borrowed Villa sweat shirt, an irony that did not escape the Dons' manager, Joe Kinnear.
But, even with Leaburn on the field, Wimbledon had produced almost nothing that could be identified as genuinely positive intent and there was no injustice when Julian Joachim, who had won the first of the penalties, supplied the cross from which Ian Taylor secured the home side's points against a 10-man Wimbledon whose fighting spirit, so splendidly to the fore in last week's astonishing win over West Ham, was this time absent.
Goals: Merson pen (45) 1-0; Taylor (57) 2-0.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Charles, Hendrie, Taylor (Draper, 88), Thompson (Grayson, 74), Wright; Joachim, Merson (Scimeca, 89). Substitutes not used: Vassell, Oakes (gk).
Wimbledon (4-3-3): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Thatcher, Kimble; Roberts (Fear, 89), Hughes (Kennedy, 83), Earle; Euell, Leaburn, Gayle (Ekoku, 79). Substitutes not used: McAllister, Heald (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).
Booking: Wimbledon: Perry. Sending-off: Wimbledon: Leaburn.
Man of the match: Joachim.
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