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Football: Jeer we go again as O'Leary can't halt Villa slide; Aston Villa 0 M'boro 2.

Byline: DAVID ANDERSON

FOR THE Holte End regulars, supporting Aston Villa during these grim times must be like visiting an ailing elderly relative.

You go because they have always been there for you and you love them, but you cannot help thinking that their best days are long gone.

There are reminders of the club's glorious past looking back at you from every wall at Villa Park whether it is Peter Withe in the 1982 European Cup Final, Peter McParland in the 1957 FA Cup Final or Dwight Yorke in the 1996 League Cup Final.

But the future is much less attractive for Villa and the signs of decline are everywhere at this once-great club, who are just one point above the relegation zone.

It is hard to believe after watching their woeful display against Middlesbrough, that Villa were top of the Premiership just two years ago under John Gregory.

They have been on the slippery slope since and not surprisingly the fans are losing faith.

Although the diehards filled the Holte End, the 29,898 crowd was still Villa's lowest league gate of the season.

Most home fans had left by the final whistle, but those who remained left Doug Ellis in no doubt about how they felt as the boos rang round Villa Park.

They mainly blame Ellis for Villa's slow and painful demise and once again they jeered their much-maligned chairman on Saturday.

So far manager David O'Leary has escaped their wrath, although the fans will not be cheered by his admission that they are locked in a desperate fight for survival.

Two goals from their last six league games makes grim reading and only Wolves have scored fewer times in the Premiership.

To make matters worse, O'Leary will have no money to spend when the transfer window opens in January and he will have to get people off the wage bill before he can bring anyone in.

As Gareth Southgate stood by the exit at Villa Park he could have been forgiven for indulging in even the slightest bit of gloating at the plight of his former club.

After all, he had questioned Villa's ambition when he left to join Middlesbrough just over two years ago.

But the England centre-half, who along with ex-Villa midfielder George Boateng was once again booed by the home fans, feels only pity for his old club.

Southgate tried to offer them some comfort and he believes O'Leary will guide them to safety this season.

"You're talking about a club which I have always maintained is in the top six in the country," said Southgate.

"It's going to take time to rebuild and I think the manager knows that. He knows the size of the task and I'm sure he can do it.

"But had they won they would be in the position we're in now. Like so many clubs they've had to bring a lot of the youngsters through and it's good to see some of the kids who were here in my time being given an opportunity.

"I'm sure they will get things going and I don't think they will struggle this season because they've got enough quality.

"They've got Dion Dublin, they've got Darius Vassell and they've got enough quality to get themselves up the league pretty quickly."

That is what Boro are now doing after their shaky start and their first top-flight win over Villa in 23 years means they have taken seven points from nine to move to mid-table.

Dutchman Boudewijn Zenden was the difference for Boro and the Holland international, whso is on loan for the season from Chelsea, scored the first and made the second.

After Juninho had found Franck Queudrue in space on the left, Zenden threw himself at the Frenchman's inviting cross to head home his first goal for Boro on 30 minutes.

He was then brought down in the box by Lee Hendrie three minutes into the second-half and Michael Ricketts slotted home from the penalty spot.

It was easily Zenden's best performance since arriving at the Riverside and with Holland taking on Scotland in the Euro 2004 play-offs, it could not have been better timed.

"At the end of the season, we have Euro 2004 coming up and for me it was important to play football," he said.

"The manager made it clear to us that that was important and it was the same for Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who left Arsenal, because we all need regular football.

"We link up on Tuesday for the Scotland game and after the disappointments of the last World Cup, I'm desperate to go to Portugal."

ATTENDANCE: 29,898

MAN OF THE MATCH: Zenden

NOW FANS ARE STAYING AWAY

Aug 24 Liverpool 0-0 42,573

Aug 30 Leicester 3-1 32,274

Sept 20 Charlton 2-1 31,410

Oct 5 Bolton 1-1 30,229

Oct 25 Everton 0-0 36,146

(CARLING CUP)

Oct 29 Leicester 1-0 26,729

Nov 8 M'brough 0-2 29,898

CAPTION(S):

KING OF THE SOUTH: Gareth Southgate battles with Juan Pablo Angel; WHAT A CARRY ON: Boudewijn Zenden jumps into the arms of Franck Queudrue after his goal put Boro on their way to a comfortable victory
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 10, 2003
Words:866
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