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FA Carling Premiership, 24/8/99
Aston Villa
One Graham Taylor
By Matt Rowson

Grange Hill. One of the finest TV programmes of all time, ever. Despite (or because of) the dependable recycling of classic storylines concerning relationships, crushes, cigarettes, scams, school uniform and debates concerning the school newspaper. Best of all: the dependable feuds, Wayne and Kevin playing tit-for-tat for a fortnight's worth of episodes until the next story took hold.

Villa's Doug Ellis and Coventry's Bryan Richardson were actually the first duo to enact such a duel in the first episode of Grange Hill 86 years ago. Since then, they've been stuck in a time warp re-enacting this uncomplicated plot in which the likes of Dion Dublin and George Boateng have become but bit players. So perhaps it's unsurprising that whilst Villa um and ahhh over how much pocket money to offer for Robbie Keane, Bryan swoops in and steals the Irishman from under their noses.

"Huh, we never wanted him anyway, so there!" says Doug's sour-faced stooge Johnny, unconvincingly. Meanwhile future instalments are rumoured to include a nasty incident including Deadly Doug, the plans for Coventry's new stadium and a large bottle of Tipp-Ex which results in the stadium having only two sides and an A-road running through the centre circle. You read it here first.

Aston Villa's season has begun with the same equal measure of swagger and stutter that was so unevenly spread over last season and by popular opinion seems to have them destined for a similar "good, but no cigar" position this time. Except that, contrary to one Villa fan's assertion that Chelsea's win on Saturday illustrated the inevitability of the Premiership, nothing is certain. Why else would we bother winning at Anfield (h'ray!), why else do we bother turning up?

In goal for the Villa will be an old Watford favourite guaranteed of a warm welcome at the Vic, David James. I won't have been alone in grinning quietly to myself as Liverpool fans spoke gleefully of having replaced the erratic Bruce Grobbelaar with a "safer" option eight years ago. Now, having given up his losing battle at Anfield, DJ has stated that he hopes to get back into the England squad. By all accounts he's not made a bad start.

Villa are employing a 3-5-2 system, which as Trev pointed during Saturday's MotD asks a lot of the side's wingbacks. Mark Delaney, newly called up by Wales and keeping Steve Watson out of the side, and Alan Wright currently fill these positions. Wright has not missed a Premiership game for two years, but now faces a challenge from Israeli signing Najuan Garayeb.

Ugo Ehiogu, linked with Old Trafford during the week, Gareth Southgate and Colin Calderwood currently hold the three centre back spots. Calderwood, signed from Spurs last season, is alone in this experienced trio in not having put a goal past his own keeper as yet (Trevor Sinclair is still the only opposition player to put one past James this term). Backup comes in the form of last season's story Gareth Barry, and another highly rated youngster David Hughes.

The midfield boasts a wealth of options, with the preferred trio on Saturday being Villa-fan Ian Taylor, Geordie Alan Thompson, and Lee Hendrie. Hendrie, who made such an impact last season, had a lively first start on Saturday having been brought in for new signing Boateng, who was struggling to adapt to the three-in-the-middle system, and is apparently short of match fitness. Other options include Mark Draper, Steve Stone and Paul Merson.

Up front is where Villa's cover certainly appears to be thinnest on the ground. The first choice pairing - the magnificent Dion Dublin and the fast Julian Joachim are strong enough, but with Stan and Darren Byfield on loan at Fulham and Northampton respectively, cover is limited to youngsters Darius Vassell and Neil Tarrant, or the misemployment of Paul Merson.

Above all, when Villa's approach falters, there doesn't appear to be much in the way of options open to Gregory at the moment, something which his reported interest in Benito Carbone is presumably hoping to address. The "toothless" accusation is something the Hornets will be hoping to further on Tuesday night.

I have to confess that I have little faith in John Gregory. It's his eyes, I think, as much as anything else. When Villa have been beaten there's a deep, disturbed glare, reminiscent of Martin Sheen's insane Army-Camp commander in "Cadence". When Villa win, this is replaced with a manic glee that shrieks "Ha! Ha! See! Hahahahaha! Mine! All mine!". Add to this his appalling apparent lack of man-management skills (see the Paul Merson and Stan Collymore sagas) and you have to conclude that there are managers in the Premiership whose jobs are more secure.

Our own GT is, of course, likely to be warmly received by the Villa support having turned around the "shambles" he inherited in 1987 with such success. Many's the time that a Villa mate and I fought backs-to-the-wall defences of GT in Leeds pubs during his England days. Add to this the fact that the Hornets' May heroics deprived Villa's close friends Brum City a chance of a Premiership place, and we may have something approaching a friendly atmosphere on Tuesday.

(Indeed, the Heroes and Villans fanzine poll reported our play-off semi as the "Best match not involving Villa" last season. And Tricky Trev as the worst TV pundit. Spot on.)

However should Deadly Doug's notorious patience expire at some future point, and Villa be on the search for another manager, there are many Villa fans who'd fancy poaching our trump card for a second time. But remember Villa, when the inevitable chorus of "one Graham Taylor" rings out on Tuesday night that he's OUR Graham Taylor.