Striking doubts for England's finest
So far this season's Premiership has meandered along without the football reaching a consistently high level of quality, but for the moment it has one distinguishing feature. The leaders are a team of Englishmen.
Once a calf injury had forced Mark Bosnich, an Australian, to give way to Michael Oakes in goal for Aston Villa at Upton Park on Saturday the Anglicisation of John Gregory's side was complete. Manchester City were the last all-English team to win the championship and that was 30 years ago.
The chances of a repetition are remote on two counts. For one thing Bosnich, when fit, will presumably be recalled (although should he leave Villa Park, as has been mooted, Oakes would be given the job full-time). For another Manchester United, scything through the dross which makes up a large part of the Premiership, are now just four points behind Villa with a match in hand.
But for a startling miss by Paul Merson 20 minutes from the end of Saturday's game, Aston Villa would probably have retained their six-point lead, since West Ham had by then run out of ideas as to how they might break down the Premiership's tightest defence.
Having set up a chance for Lee Hendrie with a finely angled pass, Merson seemed certain to score after Shaka Hislop had pushed out Hendrie's shot into the former Arsenal striker's path. Merson, however, prodded it towards the net with his studs, taking the pace off the shot and allowing Hislop time to get across and flick the ball wide.
"Strikers win matches, defenders win championships," declared Gregory, happy enough with a point from a goalless game at a difficult venue. But, sooner or later, Villa will have to start taking a higher proportion of their scoring opportunities.
Their defending, based on a well-balanced back three, wingbacks who know their job and midfielders ready to work hard at both ends of the pitch, is excellent. But every goal that Dwight Yorke scores for Manchester United will remind Villa of the need to replace him in their attack with someone equally effective.
For the time being Gregory is putting his faith, rather touchingly, in Stan Collymore, who since moving to Villa Park from Liverpool for £7 million two summers ago has scored half-a-dozen league goals and done little else. Even Gregory admits that, before he took over at Villa Park, he shared the doubts about the player's attitude.
"I thought he was moody, difficult, arrogant and not a good mixer," he said, "but slowly he's proving me wrong. He worked especially hard today, trying to get the ball back, worked his socks off in fact. With the talent he's got nobody else is going to feel sorry for him. Nobody can help Stan Collymore apart from Stan Collymore." Maybe the Merson-Collymore axis will prove sufficiently prolific for Villa. But on Saturday, hard as Collymore worked, he did not represent a strong enough threat to disturb either Rio Ferdinand or Ian Pearce, West Ham's best defender in this match.
WEST HAM UTD: Hislop, Ruddock (Impey 74), Pearce, Ferdinand, Dicks, Lomas, Lampard, Berkovic, Wright (Kitson 80), Hartson, Sinclair. Subs Not Used: Forrest, Keller, Moncur.
ASTON VILLA: Oakes, Charles, Wright, Southgate, Ehiogu, Taylor, Collymore, Merson, Thompson, Barry, Hendrie. Subs Not Used: Rachel, Draper, Joachim, Watson, Grayson. Booked: Collymore, Thompson.
Referee: P Alcock (Kent).