John Gregory on life at Aston Villa: ‘We had club chocolates that went off in 2000 – Doug Ellis got an intern to change the date to 2002’

John Gregory took Aston Villa to their last European final against FC Basel 22 years ago
John Gregory took Aston Villa to their last European final against FC Basel 22 years ago - Christopher Pledger

With less than 10 minutes remaining of Aston Villa’s last appearance in a European final, John Gregory left the home dug-out and made his way up to the directors’ box to take a seat next to the club’s notorious former chairman Doug Ellis.

Villa were 4-1 up against Swiss club FC Basel and held a 5-2 two-leg advantage, which meant they not only became one of three winners of the 2001 Intertoto Cup, along with Paris Saint-Germain and Troyes, but also progressed into that season’s Uefa Cup.

‘Deadly’ Doug, as he was referred to by supporters and pundits, was rubbing his hands at the prospect of another revenue route but had not realised the Intertoto success was going to cost him.

“There was a clause in my contract that meant I got a pay rise if we qualified for the Uefa Cup,” said former Villa manager Gregory. “We hadn’t finished high enough in the League the previous season, but we qualified by winning the Intertoto Cup.

“So after we went 4-1 up against Basel, I went up to the directors’ box and sat next to Doug which I had never, ever done before. He couldn’t work out why I was there, but he was delighted we were about to qualify for the Uefa Cup. What I didn’t remind him of on the night was that my salary was going up £3,000-a-week because it was written into my contract.”

Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis (left) during a news conference to announce John Gregory (right) as the club's new manager
Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis (left) during a news conference to announce John Gregory (right) as the club's new manager - PA/PA

Gregory will celebrate his 70th birthday next year and, although there may be the odd hint of grey in his shock of black hair, recalled his four years working for Ellis as though they were yesterday.

Villa entertain Bosian club Zrinkjski Mostar on Thursday night in the Europa Conference League – 22 years since Gregory’s team lifted football’s smallest trophy in front of their home fans.

“It was kind of a poor forerunner to the Conference League,” said Gregory. “The trophy was tiny, you could barely see it and some of the players were a bit embarrassed, I think. But the Villa fans were just desperate for any sort of success and they still are now. I was at the final game of last season, when they won to qualify for the Conference League, and the celebrations were like they’d just won the FA Cup. It was incredible. . . the noise.”

The Intertoto Cup had changed format by the time Villa again booked a Uefa Cup spot through it in 2008, with 11 clubs from the third round advancing, meaning 2001 was the last time Villa lifted a European trophy since the 1982 European Cup victory over Bayern Munich that supporters still sing about.

David Ginola scored Villa’s final goal of the Intertoto campaign under Gregory, which would have delighted Ellis, who was responsible for signing the Frenchman for £3 million from Tottenham Hotspur the previous summer.

“Doug went on holiday to Mauritius and fell in love with David,” said Gregory. “He phoned me saying ‘he’s an amazing man, he’s this and that, and hasn’t he got amazing hair’. I knew all about David and I knew he was a great showman, but he was never going to do anything defensively.

“Anyway, Doug comes back and I would have to go to the stadium two or three times a week because my personal secretary wasn’t allowed to work at the training ground. That way, I had to go to the stadium because she basically ran my life and it made sure Doug would see me.

“I would love going in and talking to absolutely everyone, but Doug had just come back and he insisted I go in and see him and he started going on about David again. He had had lunch with him and he was besotted with him. I put forward a few players I was interested in, but all I got back was ‘what about David?’ and he knew he could get him for £3 million.

“I thought that was £3 million I could spend elsewhere on someone I really wanted, but eventually I realised it was going to be David or nobody and I suppose I convinced myself that I could change him.

“David was on £20,000-a-week at Tottenham and Doug started out by offering him £15,000, which was his usual tactic. By the end of the meeting with ‘team Ginola’ he’d agreed to pay him more than double that and I’m thinking ‘I’ve got (Paul) Merson, (Dion) Dublin and (Gareth) Southgate, and they’re all going to be knocking on my door’. Of course, word got around and Merse refused to go on a pre-season trip until he was put on the same salary, and fair play because he had been brilliant for us.

Aston Villa manager John Gregory (left) with Paul Merson as he signs his contract
Aston Villa manager John Gregory (left) with Paul Merson as he signs his contract - Action Images/Nick Potts

“I must say that David was wonderful around the club and great company to chat to. He scored some brilliant goals, including in the final against Basel, but I remember we had just started using an early version of the GPS system to track the players. Every Tuesday the guy would come in to go through the players’ results from the weekend and one week he came in to me and said ‘one of your players moved one metre in the first two minutes of the game. Who do you think it was?’ I immediately guessed it was our goalkeeper David James, but, of course, it was David (Ginola). He walked one metre after the opposition kicked off and stood still. That was him, he was so frustrating.”

The signing of Ginola was out of character for Ellis and his strict control of Villa’s finances put a major obstacle in the way of Gregory’s ambition to take the club from the Intertoto Cup all the way to the Champions League.

“I wanted to sign Ruud van Nistelrooy, but there was no way Doug was going to pay £19 million, which is what Manchester United paid for him,” said Gregory. “We had a great team and I really thought we could push on and try to qualify for the Champions League and challenge for the title, but I could never drag Doug along.

“The club used to put out Aston Villa chocolates in the hospitality suites at Villa Park, which were wrapped in claret and blue foil. The best before date on them was 2000 and written on the back in gold writing. I remember Doug getting one of the interns to change the date on them all in a gold pen to 2002, so he didn’t have to throw them away and buy a new batch.

“There was another instance when a couple of the youth players had groin surgery and it was going to cost Villa about £700 on top of the insurance cover. Doug managed to convince the surgeon to drop his invoice so that the insurance covered the entire cost and he was dancing around his office celebrating. United were signing Ruud van Nistelrooy and we were changing the best before dates on chocolates and saving a few hundred quid on operations for the players.”

Aston Villa's manager John Gregory in a Premier League game against Middlesbrough in 2001
Aston Villa's manager John Gregory in a Premier League game against Middlesbrough in 2001 - PA/Rui Vieira

Gregory’s budgetary battles with Ellis came to a head two months after the Intertoto success, with Villa at the top of the Premier League table following a 3-2 victory over Bolton Wanderers at the end of October.

“We went top beating Bolton and on the Monday, I went in and told Doug that I wanted Muzzy Izzet,” said Gregory. “I knew we could get him for £5 million and his first response was ‘why do you need Muzzy Izzet, you’re top of the league’. I called a board meeting the next day to state my case, but I didn’t have a chance. From that day, I just felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall.”

Villa were seventh in the League when Gregory quit in January 2002 – the same position he witnessed the club clinch on the final day of last season to qualify for Europe.

“We had won at Charlton and I told Doug the following Wednesday that I wanted to go,” said Gregory. “He told me to sleep on it, but I felt the same way in the morning and that was that.

“I regretted it very quickly and I still do now. I had said to my wife years earlier that ‘if I ever I leave this club, it will only be downhill’ and it was. I walked away from that new contract I’d earned by winning the Intertoto Cup with nothing.

“But I look back really fondly on my time at Villa and I just wanted people to talk about us. We used to win 3-0 and still be last on Match of the Day and it would really wind me up. It’s only when you get to the club, you realise how big it is. Fortunately, things are moving in the right direction again.”

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