Gregory puts pride before the professor

Three perspectives on the national cause: from a straight man, a future man and a man who could have been
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John Gregory reels off the names of a group of men good and true from the list on his office wall, the English managers of the Premiership. Then the Aston Villa manager contemplates the prospect of anybody but an Englishman being coach of the England national side. It takes no more than a split second. "High treason," he declares. "I think it would be an absolute insult to a lot of English coaches for a foreigner to do the job."

John Gregory reels off the names of a group of men good and true from the list on his office wall, the English managers of the Premiership. Then the Aston Villa manager contemplates the prospect of anybody but an Englishman being coach of the England national side. It takes no more than a split second. "High treason," he declares. "I think it would be an absolute insult to a lot of English coaches for a foreigner to do the job."

Friday lunchtime at Aston Villa's Bodymoor Heath training ground and, while the just-completed £8m sale of Ugo Ehiogu to Middlesbrough and preparations for today's home game with Sunderland are his main preoccupations, Gregory readily turns his thoughts to the big question of the week.

You suggest, admittedly rather hesitantly given his initial response, that Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsÿne Wenger might just be exceptions to his rule.

"Alex is the master," Gregory agrees. "I wouldn't for one minute question his track record. But can we really have a Scotsman in charge of England? People keep saying, 'we must have a foreigner'. I can't agree with that, but if it has to be a non-British coach, there is only one candidate - the professor. That's my name for Wenger. There's no doubt he has got a lot of credentials."

You broach one man he has omitted from the home list. A character who has an excellent coaching background over 11 years, considerable experience of man-management, including handling some of the game's most problematic players, a healthy relationship with the media, and finally one who advocates a 3-5-2 system, which many believe would suit the national side.

One John Charles Gregory. "It's very presumptuous of anyone to turn down a job they haven't been offered," is his response to any suggestion that there could be a Gregorian chant.

It is a rare, if understandable, refusal to voice an opinion by a man whose name has become a byword for candour. But, anyway, he insists there should only be one name in contention. "Of the people that are available, Terry Venables is the best man. Don't forget that he has worked with half this squad already. He's well ahead in all the polls. Are you saying we should ignore all those people, the coaches, players, supporters?

"Then there are Peter Reid, Peter Taylor, Alan Curbishley, Bryan Robson, Joe Royle, Harry Redknapp; they are all names that would be more than capable of doing the job well. None of them are mugs. It annoys me when people say, 'oh, there's nobody around'. What they mean is that there's nobody around who's 55 and can do the job. Because that appears to be the right age to qualify. But anything could happen, because we really are scratching our bums on this one, aren't we?"

One thing is for certain. Many England players would endorse the appointment of Gregory. Since succeeding Brian Little in February 1998, he might not always have treated the sensibilities of one or two errant performers too sympathetically at times, but there will have been no complaints from those whose commitment to the Villa cause is absolute. "Overall," he says. "They're a pleasure to manage."

You get the idea of those who are not when you survey the chart on his wall. The categories, in which he places plastic markers bearing the initials of all his players: First; Muppets; Babies; Sick, Lame & Lazy; Ints (on international duty)/loans etc.

David Ginola, you discover, is in the fourth category, ostensibly because of injury. When you ask whether this summer's £3.5m transfer from Tottenham was a good move, Gregory frowns. "I've been disappointed with him," the manager replies. A large carp in a rather smaller pond than the player perceives is his natural habitat? Gregory nods, before adding: "All you're asking is for them to get out there for five mornings a week for a two hours, run their bollocks off, but go home by one o'clock, and on a Saturday afternoon give everything they've got, and in return we'll pay £20,000 a week, and in some cases £30,000. All I ask, just like that Nike advert, is that they 'just do it', just get on with it."

You reflect that management at Villa Park at times must require a footballing PhD. "I'm more of a deep thinker now. Whatever crops up, I've been there before," Gregory says. "I can see signs of myself in Ginola. I've been down this road before. I know what he's thinking."

He adds: "But what I won't do is pamper them, any of them. They've been difficult people to deal with at times, but I've stuck to my principles. I'm not one for chasing after them. You won't find me saying, 'what number would you like to wear on Saturday? What system would you like to play? My attitude is, 'you muck in with us'. I say, 'this is how we are; you will now have to alter how you are to play with us'. One or two who have come in have found that difficult. The biggest critics, I've always found, are the players themselves. They don't like it if one player is getting away with things. That was one of the problems with Stan."

Even now, he can't resist referring to Collymore. "You see it's all about reputations, he explains. "David may have been fantastic in the past, but it's now I'm concerned about. Stan kept saying to me, 'have you seen my record? I've got a better record than Dion [Dublin], a better record than Julian [Joachim]', whoever. I said, 'Stan, that was three seasons ago, at Liverpool. Bobby Charlton has got the best goalscoring record for England, but England aren't going to pick him any more'. Go and show me. There's a reserve match coming up. Show me what you can do." Gregory shakes his head dismissively. "Then he'd get an injury, or something."

There was a time when Paul Merson might have been just as disruptive a force as Collymore. Now, though, his manager cannot praise the former Arsenal man highly enough. "Paul's done it himself," insists Gregory. "At first, he just did not want to do it our way and we had a few problems. He had this perception that every day was a five-a-side day. That he could just turn up and turn it on, and suddenly discover his fitness on a Saturday afternoon.

"But gradually he got himself fully match-fit, moved up to Birmingham from London, and he's never looked back. These days, he's really together, everything about him, heart, body and soul. His reward is that he's winning Man-of the Match awards and that he has been captain in Gareth Southgate's absence. In fact, I wouldn't count him out of becoming a manager one day."

If he does, Merson will be the first to acknowledge his debt to a true expert.

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