Villa make early progress

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The Independent Football

Little was as it seemed yesterday at The Hawthorns, where on the first day of the school holidays, the home team (not West Bromwich Albion) reached the semi-final - that is to say the last 12 - of of a European competition.

Little was as it seemed yesterday at The Hawthorns, where on the first day of the school holidays, the home team (not West Bromwich Albion) reached the semi-final - that is to say the last 12 - of of a European competition.

The artists formerly known as Dukla Prague, having undergone two name changes in quick succession, emerged as Dukla Pribram, and must have been confused themselves to hear three Aston Villa players being booed every time they touched the ball, after announcing that they wish to leave the club. Paul Merson, on the other hand, quoted as saying he would be interested in returning to London, was treated like a hero, especially when he was sent off just before the finish.

Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu and, above all, thesecond-half substitute Julian Joachim, were the trio who earned the wrath of a crowd of just over 8,000 and later attracted little sympathy from Villa's manager. "I've taken the stance that if they don't want to play for Villa, they should bugger off and go somewhere else," Gregory said.

"The Villa fans showed their opinion and I don't blame them quite frankly," he added. "There's a lot of pride on the terraces. The fans worship and idolise their players and they don't like people turning their back on the club."

In the Intertoto Cup, semi-final means not the last four but the last dozen, three of whom are eventually declared "winners" and granted a place in the Uefa Cup. Whatever the next round is called, Villa's opponents, in only three days' time, will be the Spanish side Celta Vigo, who knocked them out in their last European campaign, two years ago.

Gregory's team, only back in training for a couple of weeks, will need to be sharper than against a neat Czech side, who cancelled out Dion Dublin's early header with an away goal that would have taken them through had they been able to hold on long enough. Dukla passed the ball well, in the best traditions of their country's football, but looked insecure in defence, and would have suffered a heavier loss had Michal Caloun not made a fine save to keep out Lee Hendrie's penalty kick in stoppage time.

Most of the small crowd had presumably got into the ground by then; hundreds were still outside at the unusual kick-off time of 2pm and many must have missed the goal that - deceptively, as it turned out - promised Villa an easy passage. Merson won a corner after a characteristic swinging pass with the outside of his foot and took it himself. He found Dublin, who comfortably defeated Caloun's weak attempt at a save.

Those inside by the 21st minute vented their ire on the referee, Knud Stadsgaard, who ignored his assistant's flag as Tomas Kucera ran unchecked down the right and crossed for Marek Kulic to tap in an equaliser. "I am just grateful my players kept their head," Gregory said. "If it had been at Old Trafford I think the referee would have been pinned to a corner flag."

Irritation was then turned on most of the Villa players for a slack spell, followed by a much more impressive period in the 15 minutes after half-time, when the tie was decided. After Luc Nilis, the Belgian striker making his debut, had struck a post, Ian Taylor bustled on to Southgate's free-kick to beat Caloun. Five minutes later, Nilis finished off a four-man move with a strong drive.

The remaining cameos on a strange afternoon included Merson receiving two silly yellow cards, first for time-wasting, then for a Maradona-style handball, while Joachim won a penalty - and more boos.

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