Gregory wants recognition for Villa

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The Independent Online
JOHN GREGORY neatly encapsulated the hiding-to-nothing nature of Aston Villa's unfinished Uefa Cup business against Stromsgodset in Norway tonight. "We'll make the headlines if we slip up," the Villa manager said after arriving with a 3-2 lead. "If we win, it'll be a little report tucked away on page 27."

Gregory's comments also reflected a feeling that is shared by his chairman, Doug Ellis, that Villa have not received adequate recognition for their achievement in establishing a five-point lead in the Premiership. Much of the media, and at least one rival manager, appear to regard their tenure at the top as temporary.

An unconvincing performance in the first leg, that Villa won in stoppage time after trailing 2-0, may account for some of the reservations. Gregory, who restores Stan Collymore to the starting line-up but is without the injured Gareth Barry, is honest enough to concede that their largely part- time hosts were unlucky to lose.

"We were very fortunate to come out of the match at Villa Park winning," he said. "Beforehand I had visions of it being 0-0 after an hour, and I felt we might wear them down with superior fitness in the last 30 minutes. As it was, they held up remarkably well."

Gregory's natural openness, which has led him to encourage fans to attend what were once strictly private training sessions, extends to every aspect of his management style except his attitude to defending. Villa have shut out the opposition in six of their eight fixtures and start the second leg, in the port of Drammen, 30 miles from Oslo, knowing that another clean sheet would guarantee progress to the second round.

"I can't ever remember sending a side out to intentionally draw 0-0. I think we'd find that very difficult," Gregory said. "But we've got a mentality about us that we mustn't concede a goal. Although it won't be safety-first football, we'll have that in the back of our minds."

Collymore starts a match for only the second time this season, replacing the ineligible Paul Merson. He launched his comeback as a late substitute in Saturday's 1-0 win over Derby County and Gregory said: "The fact Stan has only played four minutes is not a problem. He has shown the right attitude in training and has worked very hard to regain his fitness."

Simon Grayson deputises for Barry, having come on for the young defender on Saturday's. The 17-year-old is likely to be fit for the weekend visit to Coventry City, however.

The cramped confines of the Marienlyst Stadium, whose 6,000 capacity will be bolstered by temporary stands, hold no fears for Gregory, who was in charge of Wycombe until February. While expecting conditions to be reminiscent of Hednesford - where Villa play a testimonial match next Monday - he chuckled in agreement when it was suggested that Collymore needed to be tricked into believing he was facing Liverpool.

That may be true of Villa in general. In the 18 League fixtures since Gregory succeeded Brian Little, only Barnsley and Bolton have beaten them. "And they were both relegated," Gregory said. "We're probably at our weakest when playing teams we're expected to beat."

Stromsgodset will advance if they win 1-0 or 2-1, and expect both their former Premiership players, Jostein Flo and Erland Johnsen, to be fit after missing the game in Birmingham. Flo's aerial ability was critical when Norway twice embarrassed England to prevent Graham Taylor's team from reaching USA 94 and was also a factor in the stunning victory over Brazil at France 98.

However, Villa's record under Gregory reveals only one away defeat, and that to a penalty at Atletico Madrid in last season's quarter-final. The credit he feels they deserve on the domestic front may have to wait, but progress in Europe is well within their compass tonight.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Grayson; Charles, Taylor, Hendrie, Thompson, Wright; Collymore, Joachim.