Gregory's new ways ward off deadly days

Premiership Countdown: A summer of high-profile defections have failed to stifle the Aston Villa manager's enthusiasm for pressure game
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Like the domino clatter of England wickets, the patriotic pomp of the Proms or another birthday for the Queen Mother, tipping John Gregory to be the first Premiership manager to lose his job in the new season has become a staple of the English summer.

This year, notwithstanding the lean, tanned appearance and ebullient manner as he bounds into his office from a training session at Aston Villa's rural retreat, has been no exception. Along with the likes of Stuart Gray and Glenn Roeder, first-time managers at Southampton and West Ham respectively, Gregory is again among the favourites for a fall.

"Doesn't bother me in the slightest," he laughs, settling on the couch between a wall plastered with pictures of his children and another adorned by framed shots of Bruce Springsteen. "I like to work under pressure. I couldn't live with a boring, mundane job where you're not expected to reach any targets and just pick up your money every week.

"Life's about being challenged and tested. Any Premiership manager is always one defeat from a crisis. Lose a game in this league and all hell breaks loose, especially in the media."

Talking of whom, Gregory declares himself unconcerned by dark mutterings that Doug Ellis's appointment to the board of Graham Taylor, a hugely successful former Villa manager, means he is on borrowed time. "It may look as if Graham's looking over my shoulder but he's heavily committed to ITV Sport. He told me he's hardly likely to see us play this season, let alone be breathing down my neck.

"The day Arthur Cox signed me for Derby in '85, he announced he was already looking for my replacement. It was understood that he'd throw me away when he'd had enough of me. You're very quickly yesterday's man. But any speculation about me is more to do with Doug's reputation than mine."

Last winter's conflict with Ellis – when he had to apologise to the famously intolerant chairman for claiming he was in a "time-warp" – was grist to the rumour mill. For the time being, however, peace prevails. "Our relations are as good as they've ever been," says Gregory. "They really are. We both know what we want and we're letting each other do his job."

Gregory's position had been further undermined when the striker on whom he lavished a club-record £9.5m, Juan Pablo Angel, struggled horribly upon being transplanted from Buenos Aires into a bleak Midland midwinter. Villa trailed in eighth, respectability to some but their lowest position in six years – and worse was to follow.

Gareth Southgate, the captain and most-capped player in claret-and-blue history, upped sticks for Middlesbrough, who also plundered Gregory's right-hand man, Steve Harrison, and his goalkeeping coach, Paul Barron. Villa's other regular in the England squad, David James, defected to West Ham.

An observer in the national press echoed local scepticism about Gregory's ability to attract replacements of comparable stature. "Villa go in for everybody," he wrote, "and come out with nobody." Others doubted he would even survive to take them into Saturday's opening game at Tottenham.

Well he has, and he will, flanked by John Deehan (ex-Villa striker and Wigan manager) and Eric Steele (former Derby team-mate), who have filled the posts vacated by Harrison and Barron. And he will do so with a side whose cosmopolitan character has been further enhanced by new blood from Denmark, Sweden, Morocco and Croatia. The starting line-up for Sunday's friendly in Spain contained just one English player; so much for the "British is best" mantra of his first year.

The revamped Villa beat Racing Santander 2-0, with Angel heading both goals and Peter Schmeichel saving a penalty. More pertinently, they stand on the brink of a Uefa Cup berth via the InterToto competition, a 1-1 draw in Switzerland with FC Basle leaving them well placed to go through next week.

So, argues Gregory, Villa's latest summer from hell – the tag they attracted before springing Schmeichel on an impressed public – has actually been a period of renewal. Surely the haemorrhaging of assets and allies suggests otherwise? "When you examine it, only one person who left has gone on to better things," he retorts, "and that's Yorkey [Dwight Yorke].

"Steve Staunton went to Liverpool, found the grass wasn't greener and came back. Bozzie [Mark Bosnich] went to Manchester United and disappeared into the sunset [the Australian goalkeeper is now with Chelsea]. Ugo (Ehiogu) went to Middlesbrough." While Gregory does not add "of all places", the way he enunciates the Teesside club's name says exactly that.

Of his erstwhile backroom aides he adds: "You're always sad to lose good staff, but it came as a big shock that they'd want to join Middlesbrough. I think I can honestly say the pair of them left for more money. I couldn't deny them the opportunity of a five-year contract which doubled their wages. The only thing is that they've gone to a rival club. As of Saturday, they're enemies."

In many eyes, the exodus to the Riverside proves that a club without a major honour in 126 years are more ambitious than Villa, European champions just 19 years ago. Gregory puts it a different way: "What it says is that Boro pay exceptionally well; that they rank alongside United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea as the big payers."

Whether Southgate now has a better chance to achieve his stated wish to challenge for a Champions' League place is, in Gregory's pointed phrase, for others to say. "Gareth has had a significant increase on his salary [he had] here. But who can tell what lengths anyone would go to when people are basically saying: 'Here's a salary that means you don't have to work for the rest of your life'? All I know is he was a good servant for us."

In view of Villa's convulsions, the "good gut feeling" Schmeichel claimed to have about them sounded like another press-conference platitude. Gregory puts the master keeper's comments into context. "I feel we're surrounding ourselves with people who are 100 per cent committed. The ones that left were 90 to 95 per cent, but that's not enough.

"Players today earn incredibly good money. They live a life they'd never have dreamed of when they first kicked a ball. They're pop stars, worldwide celebrities. With that goes a responsibility to give everything they've got.

"Schmeichel understands that. He had so much to lose and very little to gain by coming here. But he's here to keep goal, not just as an ambassador or motivator; his first priority is clean sheets. His self-belief is awesome – he still considers it to be between him and [Fabien] Barthez for best keeper in the world – though above all he's a team man.

"With the addition of Schmeichel, Olof Mellberg, Hassan Kachloul, Mustapha Hadji and now Bosko Balaban [the £6m striker from Dinamo Zagreb for whom Villa are awaiting a work permit], we're putting together a squad who desperately want to play for Aston Villa.

"They'll be busting a gut this season, which is what the fans want. Des Bremner [a midfielder in the 1982 European Cup-winning side] wasn't the most cultured footballer who ever pulled on a Villa shirt. But he played every bloody week for Ron Saunders; he'd be the best trainer, first pick in five-a-sides and often the outstanding performer on a Saturday. We're looking to recreate that." One can envisage Gregory's quintet of newcomers fulfilling his work ethic, as personified by his new captain, Paul Merson. Angel's future seems less clear despite his weekend flourish; he was so peripheral in the InterToto fixtures that he made David Ginola look like Des Bremner.

Ellis may view the Colombian's assimilation problems as vindication of the fiscal prudence which many supporters interpret as evidence of a lack of ambition. So it is ironic to hear Gregory sounding not unlike his chairman when discussing how Villa might maximise their "massive potential".

"The armchair managers think it's all about spending money. But if you go into debt to put a team on the field you risk going bankrupt. Fans see Liverpool spending £70m and think we should do the same. If you splash that sort of money and it goes wrong, you won't have a club to come back to."

That said, he wonders aloud whether Villa would have sampled the Champions' League by now had they invested an extra £15m "from a position of strength" when they topped the table in late '98. "Leeds, for example, took themselves to a certain pitch, but instead of being content with that they threw more wood on the fire, even if they've won nothing as yet."

In the campaign ahead, Gregory finds it hard to see beyond the usual suspects. Patrick Vieira's continued presence makes Arsenal his main choice to challenge Manchester United, whose Charity Shield defeat he watched on Sunday with their visit to Villa Park a week on Sunday in mind.

He drools over the "fantastic array of talent" in the champions' armoury, yet has an inkling that United's loss of another of his old Derby colleagues, Steve McClaren, also to Middlesbrough, might even up the race.

"It's impossible to say how close it'll be, but for the sake of English football I hope it's closer than last time," says Gregory before concluding, in another echo of summers past: "What I do know is that Aston Villa have to try to break into it."

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