Dynamic Dublin halts slide but Ellis is still chief villain

Aston Villa 1 Southampton 0: Vital victory dampens fans' anger at veteran chairman
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The Independent Football

There is nothing like the combination of victory and wretched weather to put the dampers on football demos and this duly happened at Villa Park, where the home side put behind them a desperate run of seven matches without a win. Dion Dublin, outstanding in defence, was the one who broke the dismal sequence in the closing seconds of the opening half, and Villa did enough in that period to merit the victory which lifts them out of the bottom three and, just as important, raises the spirits of their followers.

Southampton, are in some disarray too, as their manager Gordon Strachan observed. They have now managed just one win in eight matches and failed to score in seven of those. "I can't get my head round that first-half performance,'' he said. "There was nothing there. That's as bad as I have seen from us this season. We could have had [Hernan] Crespo, Ronaldo and [Thierry] Henry and we would not have had any chances in the first half.''

Villa's recent slide sparked another in the seemingly endless series of complaints against the 79-year-old chairman Doug Ellis. Some 500 supporters of Villa Fans Combined gathered before the match in heavy rain, flaunting "Ellis Out" banners and placards, though they were kept away from the directors' entrance. Beforehand, Dublin had pleaded: "Don't blame Doug, blame us, the players.''

"Ellis has been there so many times before,'' said one cynic who declined to join the protest. "Every time Villa play badly they blame Doug.'' But the fanzine Heroes and Villains carried this slogan on its cover: "One hundred and nine issues, one message. ELLIS OUT!!! ...and we'll keep saying it until he goes."

Though only two banners dangled from the balcony at the Holte End - the Villa die-hards' gathering place - the "Ellis Out" placards formed a sea of white as the teams emerged. Ellis himself chose to arrive as diplomatically as he could a couple of minutes later, but he was still roundly booed.

Without Mark Delaney because of knee trouble, Villa welcomed back Gavin McCann from suspension and Juan Pablo Angel from international duty with Colombia, while for Southampton top scorer James Beattie was declared fit following a calf strain.

After an early scare, when Thomas Sorensen just beat Kevin Phillips to a loose ball and then Anders Svensson struck a cross shot wide, Villa settled down to dominate the opening half, with Angel sharp and quick up front, Gareth Barry running the left side of midfield and the England striker, Darius Vassell, causing apprehension in Southampton's back line with his darting runs.

Soon the match resolved itself into a contest between Antti Niemi in the Southampton goal and a Villa side eager to break their duck, having failed to score in the last two home games. Angel found the net with one deliciously curled effort, only to see the offside flag raised. Clearly nettled, the Colombian had another go, his drive dipping on to the roof of the net. Next a Peter Whittingham effort had Niemi colliding with a goalpost in his anxiety to cover it.

Twice the excellent Barry set up openings for Angel and twice Niemi was equal to the occasion. But just when it seemed Villa would have to endure a goalless 45 minutes, they scored in the last moments of the half. Gavin McCann's corner was misheaded by Beattie to Dublin, whose overhead kick was too accurate for Niemi.

Chris Marsden and Jason Dodd were brought on by Strachan for the second half to toughen attitudes and the visitors immediately came close to levelling the scores when Olof Mellberg almost diverted a Phillips cross past his own keeper. More lively initiative from Phillips ended in an even more dangerous centre, which both Beattie and Neil McCann narrowly failed to connect with.

Southampton were much more into things but Villa, having got that precious lead, showed admirable determination in hanging on to it, or even extending it. This looked most likely whenever Dublin forsook his policing of Beattie to forge upfield. Dublin culminated one piece of Vassell's close-control wizardry by demanding another fine stop from Niemi. The keeper could do nothing just afterwards, however, as a Dublin header spun past a post, but he pulled off another extraordinary save in added time, blocking the substitute Thomas Hitzlsperger's goalbound effort with an extended left leg.

Villa manager David O'Leary expressed delight for the players, with special praise for the 34-year-old Dublin, albeit in topsy-turvy fashion. "Dion stood out like a sore thumb,'' was how he put it.