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FA Carling Premiership, 5/2/00
Aston Villa
Eastenders is great
By Matt Rowson

Eastenders is great. Wonderful. Unmissable. Miserable, yes. Gloomy, of course. But wonderful. Constant, predictable, just about engaging enough to capture your concentration whilst the day's hassle drops away. If football is the unrestrained weekend drinking binge, Eastenders is increasingly the quick half that gets you through the week (or fortnight. Or whatever. Fixture congestion? Not up here mate.).

Steve Owen. Classic bad guy. But a good bad guy, somehow. Our bad guy rather than theirs. Andy Hessenthaler rather than David Preece, maybe. Frank Butcher. Fraaaaank. Comedy character. Jack Charlton. Ian Beale. Sulky, arrogant, petulant. Booked by Andy d'Urso after that penalty decision at Old Trafford last week, if he hadn't bottled it. Beppe Di Marco. All scowls, gestures and posturing. That's where Di Canio was.

So football is a soap opera, as I've suggested before. Natural, then, that Eastenders should gravitate towards football, as the inhabitants of the Square assembled at the Vic during Tuesday's episode to watch "the big game" and drink cheap beer. A Happy Hour to celebrate what can only have been Egypt vs. Burkina Faso in the African Nations Cup... see, I told you Eastenders was cool.

But the most memorable thing about this episode wasn't central to the plot. Nothing to do with Matthew's improbable transformation from spotty oik to quivering psycho, nothing to do with Terry and his sodding car, and nothing to do with the Walford Mafia. No, what dominated, spoiled the episode for me was the absolutely shocking refereeing in that televised game. I mean, how are you supposed to take a plot seriously when appalling decisions like that are being made in the background? He ruined it for me, that ref, ruined it.

Not the first thing that a ref's done wrong this week either. Crashed my bloody car on Friday night, that was the referee's fault too. So what if my brakes failed, so what if I should have veered up the verge instead of ploughing into the stationary car, that was your responsibility ref...your first priority should be the safety of the players.

And the presentation that I stuffed up on Monday morning. Your call, referee. Whose decision was it to schedule me a presentation on a Monday morning? Take control referee, you're a joke, man.

Tedious, isn't it, Mr.Gregory? Very tedious.

The most baffling thing about the Premiership at the moment is how John Gregory can be motivating Aston Villa's upturn in form. The man is clearly insane...not endearingly eccentric like Martin O'Neill, verging on the senile like Jack Charlton, or drugged up like Big Ron, but a completely disturbed and worrying individual incapable of controlling his own body movements let alone managing a football team.

Two possibilities present themselves. One is that the world really is conspiring against Aston Villa. That Gregory is right, that every referee is determined to undermine the Villa's (and Gregory's) very existence and yer man is cracking up in the face of the world's scepticism. However, anyone who watched Paul Alcock's ludicrous performance at Valley Parade two weeks ago will know that the world is actually twisted against the Hornets, which blows this first theory right out of the water.

The second possibility is that Gregory is a stooge, a front-man deflecting attention from the real manager who gets on with his job undisturbed behind the scenes. Whereas Vialli's suave cool gets him through the same situation at Stamford Bridge, Gregory is so concerned that the world might cotton onto the fact that a complete incompetent would never get a job at a place like Villa that he puts on a show of lunacy to give everyone something else to think about. Vialli, meanwhile, becomes bored and pulls his boots on again. (No idea who the mystery man is, by the way. Not Mark McGhee, anyway.).

Whatever the truth about team management, the fact is that Villa have turned an increasingly worrying looking downward slide into a positive run of form. There is still doubt shed over many of the expensive signings...Stone, Watson, Boateng and Merson, despite recent improvements from the latter two, are still on trial.

However, the defence looks very solid. DJ has maintained his good form from earlier in the season, with only the very occasional blooper blotting his record. He also wound up Paolo Di Canio after the clubs' recent encounter, which is obviously a Good Thing.

The back three occasionally suggest that they are three excellent individuals rather than an excellent unit of three...whatever, they're pretty handy, Ehiogu, penalty victim Southgate and the youngster Gareth Barry. Wingbacks are Steve Watson (or occasionally the more popular Mark Delaney) and the industrious Alan Wright.

Plenty of competition exists for the three midfield slots...Boateng and Merson both impressed at the weekend, although Ian Taylor, having a splendid season despite eleven bookings, will probably return from injury. Add the names of Stone, Lee Hendrie and Alan Thompson to the mix and it's easy to understand Mark Draper's decision to join Rayo Vallecano on loan for the season.

Up front, the loss of Dublin is a blow, although it does force some attempts at creativity. Joachim is fast but limited, Carbone scored a fine hat-trick on Sunday but has done little else in a Villa shirt and still looks like a girl. Stan looked set to leave, finally, until Doug Ellis slapped a 3m fee on him (bet John's pleased), and with Darius Vassell also out for a few weeks competition up front is limited. Rumours are surfacing of a bid for Roma's Argentinian forward Gustavo Bartelt, possibly to arrive on loan before Saturday.

Villa have another huge game on Wednesday evening in the Worthington Cup, and we must hope that their sights are focused in this direction. Certainly we could do without reliving the discomfort of our last trip to Villa Park. Paul Merson, wounded during the immaculate construction of the winning goal on Sunday, is battling to be fit for Wednesday, but has still found time to offer support to Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, the billionth fallen stars to be offered Merse's shoulder to cry on.

At least if Matthew's revenge on Thursday is as shocking as the trailers suggest, Steve Owen will know who to call.