Gregory matches Graham grind

Leeds United 0 Aston Villa 0 Attendance: 33,446

THERE IS not a lot more that John Gregory could have achieved in his seven months as the heroic manager of the Villans. He has hauled the somnolent football giant of the West Midlands from the fringe of the Premiership nether regions to the very summit. He has cleared the hurdles presented by the disaffected Dwight Yorke and the homesick Mrs Unsworth and kept the loose cannon Stan Collymore in check, for the time being at least. He has even obliged the deadly Doug to dig deep into his pockets for the four-year contract to which he put his signature on Friday.

He could not, however, inspire his players to break the deadlock and the deadening tedium at Elland Road yesterday. Gregory's boys remain top of the Premiership pile, though they hardly played like champions-elect against the team which started the afternoon in third position. Not until the 86th minute did they seriously threaten to collect three points and when Julian Joachim, left in the clear by the bungling Robert Molenaar, pulled his right-foot shot wide of the Leeds goal, Gregory slammed his drinks bottle to the ground in frustration.

Not that Villa lost their bottle. In keeping their hosts off the scoresheet, they matched Leeds' mean record of just one goal conceded in six Premiership matches this season. They also maintained the impressive run of league results Gregory has gathered since he succeeded Brian Little in February: 15 wins, two draws and two defeats. "I think it's fair to say we won a point today," the Villa manager said. "We know we've got a hell of a long way to go. There's still a lot of room for improvement in the side, particularly offensively."

That Gregory's Villans remain far from the finished article was evident on Tuesday night when they gave the butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers of Stromsgodset a 2-0 lead before playing catch-up with a vengeance. They ultimately overtook the Norwegian part-timers thanks to the face-saving grace of Darius Vassell's late goals. The 18-year-old Brummie was restricted to bench duty yesterday, with Paul Merson free to rejoin Joachim in attack.

It needed to be a striking partnership in every sense against a Leeds defence unaccustomed to giving away leads. Not since last season have Graham's grinders fallen behind in a match and, Joachim's late miscue apart, they were never in great danger of trailing yesterday. Leeds enjoyed an early spell of attacking endeavour, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink flashing a header wide and shooting into the side-netting, but they were found increasingly wanting in the creative department. Mark Bosnich did get his knickers in a twist in the final minute of the opening half but Ian Harte's low drive struck the Australian's left-hand post and Lee Bowyer's follow-up header hit the cross-bar.

The simple enough act of keeping possession proved beyond both teams for much of the soporific second-half as play meandered around the midfield area. The few openings that materialised were no more than half-chances, Ian Taylor glancing a header wide and Harte hoofing a long-range effort an inch or two over Bosnich's bar. The exception came with four minutes remaining. In attempting to control Gareth Southgate's hit-and-hope ball, Molenaar merely succeeded in giving Joachim his sitter.

It was difficult, on yesterday's evidence, to argue with Graham's post- match appraisal that both teams are "top six material" rather than heavyweight championship contenders. "Villa have made a good start," he said. "They're a nice little side, just like we are. But I don't think either of us are as good as the big boys."

Both have yet to even play with the big boys. The true vintage of Gregory's clarets may not become clear until Liverpool come calling in November.

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