Football: Why England need Sutton

Aston Villa 1 Blackburn Rovers 3
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The Independent Online
MEMO TO Howard Wilkinson: in the cause of enhancing England's attacking options, the forgiveness which your predecessor belatedly showed to Andy Cole should now be extended to Chris Sutton.

One of the many messy episodes that marred Glenn Hoddle's reign was his uncharitable attitude towards Sutton after he refused to play for England B. The Blackburn striker felt he merited a place in the senior squad, and the evidence of his club's first away win this season was that the caretaker coach would be advised to seek a reconciliation.

Despite being inactive since Boxing Day, the man who matched Michael Owen and Dion Dublin goal for goal in last season's Premiership gave a textbook demonstration of modern centre-forward play. Mobile and menacing, strong and selfless, Sutton showed exactly why Aston Villa were so keen to buy him before beating Blackburn to Dublin.

The former Coventry player was intermittently dangerous as Villa created enough opportunities to have at least drawn. Yet he looked one- dimensional, almost an old-fashioned target man, compared with Sutton. At a time when Alan Shearer appears to have lost sharpness, Hoddle's long- term successor can not afford to ignore a player who does not turn 26 until next month.

"It's a shame he's not in the England squad," said Brian Kidd in a television interview. But when a press man later asked, not unreasonably, whether the change in the national set-up might open the door for Sutton, the Blackburn manager assumed he was being asked to kick Hoddle when he was down. He dismissed the question as "a cheap shot".

In that prickly moment, it could have been Alex Ferguson talking. Kidd's new club are a long way from matching the standards being set by his old one, but 16 points out of 27 under his charge suggests they are more likely to emulate Villa's surge up the table after John Gregory's appointment a year ago than remain near the relegation zone.

It helps, of course, when you can immediately spend pounds 15m-plus on players, and Kidd's captures were heavily involved in the goals that condemned Villa to a third successive defeat. The first, however, was donated by Gareth Southgate, who rose before the Holte End like Andy Gray or Peter Withe of old to head past his own goalkeeper.

Sutton created the second, incendiary energy burning off Ricky Scimeca before he picked out Ashley Ward. Matt Jansen, buzzing between midfield and the front like a born-again Beardsley, made the third, volleyed in by David Dunn.

Julian Joachim's riposte might have launched a fightback had Dublin not sent a header at John Filan two minutes later, though Gregory, ever the realist, declined to "dress up" the ease with which Villa surrendered possession.

If the last two Blackburn goals underlined the extent to which they missed Ugo Ehiogu, the home side's lack of spark and ingenuity highlighted how important Lee Hendrie has become since Gregory plucked him from the reserves. The fact that Filan was busier than Michael Oakes should not blind those who bankroll Villa to their lack of strength in depth.

The respective substitutes' rosters were instructive. Blackburn's boasted pounds 16m worth of signings whereas Villa's contained four players yet to start a Premiership fixture. When Fulham turfed them out of the FA Cup, Villa's untried youngsters contrasted with three internationals on the Second Division leaders' bench.

While Gregory asserted that Villa's need for fresh blood "went without saying", he rightly argued that there is still time for Villa to regain their pre-Christmas pre-eminence. They do not play again until a week on Wednesday, at home to Leeds, and he intimated that it would be "a big surprise" if there were no new faces in the claret and blue by then.

Villa are out of the top three for the first time, and face Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal in their final away games. But if they can put together a winning run before that sequence, there must be a possibility, however slender, that their rivals will feel the pressure of pushing for more than one prize.

Meanwhile, as those above them flaunt their resources - the names Solskjaer, Forssell, Kanu and Diawara spring to mind - it seems to sum up the state of Villa's challenge that they have a pounds 7m "asset" who is neither injured, suspended nor available. Pressed on Stan Collymore's future, the once- supportive Gregory replied: "Don't waste my time. Ask him if you can find him." The spirit of forgiveness can, it appears, be stretched to breaking point.

Goals: Southgate og (27) 0-1; Ward (62) 0-2; Dunnn (64) 0-3; Joachim (69) 1-3.

Aston Villa (3-4-1-2): Oakes; Scimeca, Southgate, Barry (Thompson, 79); Watson, Grayson, Taylor, Wright; Merson; Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Vassell, Standing, Samuel, Enckelman (gk).

Blackburn Rovers (3-4-1-2): Filan; Peacock, Broomes, Davidson; McAteer, Dunn, McKinlay, Wilcox; Jansen (Duff, 82); Sutton, Ward. Substitutes not used: Davies, Dailly, Croft, Flowers (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Man of the match: Sutton.

Attendance: 37,404.