Richards rouses Saints

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By Peter Drury

By Peter Drury

Aston Villa 0

Southampton 1 Richards 84

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 26,474

07 November 1999

Dark days for Aston Villa. On Bonfire weekend, they performed like a damp box of fireworks - sparking only intermittently, barely entertaining, leaving their audience with a profound sense of empty anti-climax.

The withdrawal, 10 minutes from the end, of Paul Merson - one of Villa's few potential rockets - earned their manager, John Gregory, a chorus from the Holte End of: "You don't know what you're doing". One can only guess what impact on Gregory's long-term job security will have been made by Dean Richards' late winner.

The form of the protagonists hardly pointed to an expansive, confident contest. Each had suffered the complete month of October without a Premiership win; the Saints had slipped to within striking range of the relegation zone; even Villa had contrived to garner a better view of the bottom than the top.

In response to which downward spiral - and with Ian Taylor suspended - Gregory shuffled his pack, reintroducing Alan Wright at left-back and partnering Gareth Barry with Merson in central midfield. It was at the point of their only change that Southampton were most closely examined early in the game. Patrick Colleter, preferred on the left side of defence to Francis Benali, had already been pulled up for one foul on Steve Stone when the former Forest winger - starting a first-team game for the first time this season - skipped away from him and supplied a cross which Alan Thompson headed airily over.

Villa, indeed, were altogether readier to adjust to the awkward, blustery conditions. Thompson came closest to breaking through. Carbone having been sent tumbling by Richards on the edge of the Saints' penalty area, he thundered a left-footed free-kick against the underside of the crossbar.

However, on what was always liable to be an error-strewn afternoon, Southampton were never too far away from their next glimpse of goal. Mark Hughes hit a rising shot into the Holte End; Stuart Ripley drove against Wright close to the Villa goal-line; David James was near to an embarrassing spillage of Colleter's well-struck effort but restored his solidity to deny Ripley again.

James was immediately reawakened after the interval, sprawling to his right to keep out Richards' firm, downward header. At once Villa retorted, with Dublin volleying over, and the tone was set for a harum-scarum spell of end-to-end football. Fancy players almost pros- pered - Carbone light-footedly for Villa, Ripley thrusting from wide for the Saints. Each was one decent final pass from the sort of opening promised by such a hell-for-leather period.

Carbone occasionally threatened to light the claret-and-blue touchpaper. His instinctive, half-volleyed response when Merson had a shot charged down at least brought forth a roar from Villa throats. Merson's subsequent dart to the byline and cross for Dublin was another fleeting, uplifting moment. But the glancing header wide was more typical of the afternoon.

Carbone did require another arching save of Jones as the game dragged into its final quarter, but the sting in the tail, with six minutes left, was provided by Southampton. Hassan Kachloul's left-wing corner was flicked on at the near post and Richards' forehead applied the thumping finish.