Gregory the national manager candidate who fell from grace

The rise and fall of John Gregory is a modern football parable. In four years, Gregory has gone from lording it at the Premiership summit and being touted as a future England manager to a messy sacking by a lowly First Division club amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with an agent.

Like another brash young manager, David O'Leary, when Gregory was in charge of Aston Villa he dared to dream of breaking the Manchester United-Arsenal duopoly. Both demanded the resources to take their clubs into the Champions' League.

Leeds gave O'Leary what he wanted, then gave him the sack. He has only just returned to management - with Villa, ironically. Gregory tired of the war of attrition with the Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, and defected to Derby, who in turn confirmed yesterday that his dismissal will stand.

The picture looked so much brighter during Gregory's first year as a top-flight manager. Plucked from Wycombe Wanderers by Villa early in 1998, the former England midfielder and graduate of the Terry Venables coaching "academy" at Queen's Park Rangers made a stunning impact on the club where he previously played and coached.

Of the 10 matches left in 1997-98, Villa won eight and surged from 15th to seventh. "Everything I touched turned to gold," Gregory later recalled. The next autumn, Villa surged to the top by going 12 games unbeaten from the start of the season and hit 1999 still in the lead.

They did it with a side that regularly contained 11 Englishmen. Such trend-bucking, which coincided with Glenn Hoddle's increasingly parlous position with England, led to Gregory's name being mentioned as a possible successor.

Gregory was intelligent, articulate and media-friendly. If his tactical nous had yet to be fully tested, he seemed determined single-handedly to restore the good name of English managers in the era of Ferguson, Wenger and Houllier.

Interviewing Gregory during that record-breaking run, his feelings for Aston Villa were obvious. He drooled about the "beautiful symmetry" of the name ("five letters in each... unique, romantic"). He had a car number plate which read like "Villa" and a snooker table with the club crest emblazoned on the green baize.

But Villa had run themselves into the ground and their form collapsed in the second half of the campaign. Gregory found that Ellis saw the club as his domain rather than the manager's. A struggle for control and public opinion ensued, with the chairman's alleged reluctance to spend "big" as the battle ground.

Ellis was adamant he would not "do a Leeds", a stance vindicated by Peter Ridsdale's subsequent demise. Gregory remained intensely ambitious, however, an unsuccessful trip to Wembley for the 2000 FA Cup final reviving his vision of fulfilling Villa's vast potential.

There had been problems with players, notably Paul Merson's addictions, Stan Collymore's depression, David Ginola's weight and the desire of Dwight Yorke and Mark Bosnich to join Ferguson. Gregory was also a prolific contributor to the Football Association's coffers for his criticism of referees.

Despite such difficulties, he achieved successive sixth-place finishes in the Premiership. Even in his third season, when he had apologise to Ellis for accusing him of "living in a timewarp" over finance and facilities, they came eighth.

But the following summer his captain and linchpin, Gareth Southgate, led a spate of departures to Middlesbrough. The purse strings were loosened to buy the Swede Olof Mellberg and Turkey's Alpay Ozalan and the Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel - signifying a change in his attitude over foreign players - but Gregory's passion for the game seemed to have been eroded.

By resigning 18 months ago and resurfacing swiftly at Pride Park, Gregory denied Ellis the pleasure of handing him his cards. And he was still in the Premiership. Yet he could not keep Derby there, or prevent the debt-ridden Rams' slide down the First.

Against a backdrop of claims of improper dealings with his own agent, Paul Stretford, and damaging accusations by Craig Burley that he made the Scottish international train when he had a bad injury, John Gregory's star waned.

Now, though he is only 49 and can take heart from the fact that Brian Clough appeared similarly damaged after his short, ill-starred spells at Brighton and Leeds, it appears all but burnt out.

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