Why John Gregory was a hero and a Villain

ANY Brighton player who scores twice in a win over Crystal Palace is generally revered forever. The sheen John Gregory acquired for that feat was somewhat tarnished when he was manager of Aston Villa.

Gregory’s brace in a vital 3-0 win over Palace on Easter Saturday 1981 helped ensure the Seagulls survived in the top-flight (while the Eagles were already heading for relegation).

In 1998, though, he was caught up in a wrangle over Brighton’s efforts to secure a sizeable fee for their input to the early career of Gareth Barry, who’d joined Villa while still a teenage prodigy.

Albion’s chairman Dick Knight pursued the matter through the correct football channels and eventually secured a potential seven-figure sum of compensation for the St Leonards-born player, who spent six years in Brighton’s youth ranks but refused to sign a YTS deal after Villa’s approach.

The Football League appeals tribunal met in London and ruled the Premiership side should pay Brighton £150,000 immediately, rising to a maximum £1,025,000 if he made 60 first-team appearances and was capped by England. Brighton were also to receive 15 per cent of any sell-on fee.

“It was what I had hoped for, although I hadn’t necessarily expected the tribunal to deliver it,” Knight said in his autobiography, Mad Man – From the Gutter to the Stars. “Villa certainly hadn’t; Gregory was furious and stormed out of the building.”

Gregory mockingly asserted that Knight wouldn’t have recognised the player if he’d stood on Brighton beach wearing an Albion shirt, a football under his arm and a seagull on his head.

“For a former Albion player, Gregory surprisingly seemed to take it as a personal affront,” said Knight. “His position was patronising and the behaviour of Aston Villa scandalous.”

Although Villa paid the initial instalment, they didn’t lie down and go with the ruling and ultimately Knight ended up doing a deal with Villa chairman, ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis, for £850,000 that gave Brighton a huge cash injection in an hour of need.

Barry, of course, ended up having a stellar career, earning 53 England caps, making 653 Premier League appearances and captaining Villa during 11 years at the club.

Knight’s settlement with Ellis meant Brighton missed out on £1.8 million which they would have been entitled to when Barry was sold on to Manchester City in 2009.

But back to Gregory. He had a habit of returning to manage clubs he had previously played for. Villa was one (between February 1998 and January 2002). He also bossed QPR, who he played for after two years with the Albion, and Derby County, who he’d played for in the Third, Second and First Divisions.

His first foray into management had been at Portsmouth. He then worked as a coach under his former Villa teammate Brian Little at Leicester City (1991-1994) and Villa (1994-1996) before becoming a manager in his own right again during two years at Wycombe Wanderers.

The lure of Villa drew him back to take charge as manager at Villa Park in February 1998 when he was in charge of players such as Gareth Southgate, Paul Merson and David Ginola.

During his near four-year reign, Villa reached the 2000 FA Cup Final – they were beaten 2-0 by Chelsea – but won the UEFA Intertoto Cup in November 2001, beating Switzerland’s Basel 4-1.

Although his win percentage (43 per cent) was better at Villa than at any other club he managed, fan pressure had been building when league form slumped as the 2001-02 season went past the halfway mark and a ‘Gregory out’ banner was displayed in the crowd.

Gregory eventually bowed to the pressure and tendered his resignation, although chairman Ellis said: “John’s resignation is sad. It was most unexpected but has been amicable.”

He stepped out of the frying pan into the fire when he took charge of an ailing Derby County, who were bottom of the Premier League, and, after a winning start, he wasn’t able to keep them up.

County sacked him in March 2003 for alleged misconduct but in a protracted legal wrangle he eventually won £1m for unfair dismissal. However, the ongoing dispute meant he couldn’t take up another job and he spent much of the time as a TV pundit instead.

It was in September 2006 that he finally stepped back into a managerial role, taking over from Gary Waddock as QPR manager, and while he managed to save them from relegation from the Championship, ongoing poor form the following season led to him being sacked in October 2007.

It only emerged in 2013 that five years earlier Gregory had discovered he was suffering from prostate cancer. Nevertheless, he continued working, managing two clubs in Israel and one in Kazakhstan.

He had one other English managerial job, taking charge of Crawley Town in December 2013, although ill health brought his reign to an end after a year and former Albion striker Dean Saunders replaced him.

Two and a half years after leaving Crawley, Gregory emerged as head coach of Chennaiyin in the Indian Super League. With former Albion favourite Inigo Calderon part of his side, he led them in 2018 to a second league title win, and he was named the league’s coach of the year.

Born in Scunthorpe on 11 May 1954, Gregory was one of five sons and two daughters of a professional footballer also called John who had started his career at West Ham.

The Gregory family moved to Aldershot when young John was only two (his dad had been transferred to the Shots) but then moved to St Neots, near Huntingdon, when his father took up a job as a security guard after retiring from the game.

Young Gregory went to St Neots Junior School and his first football memories date from the age of nine, and he was selected as a striker for the Huntingdonshire County under 12 side.

He moved on to Longsands Comprehensive School and played at all age levels for Huntingdon before being selected for the Eastern Counties under 15 side in the English Schools Trophy.

Northampton Town signed him on apprentice terms at the age of 15 and he progressed to the first team having been converted to a defender and remained with the Cobblers for seven years.

It was in 1977 that Ron Saunders signed him for Villa for £65,000, which was considered quite a sum for a Fourth Division player.

Gregory famously played in every outfield position during his two years at Villa Park and he welcomed the move to newly promoted Albion because it finally gave him the chance to pin down a specific position.

Chris Cattlin had been right-back as Albion won promotion from the second tier for the first time in their history but he was coming to the end of his career and, in July 1979, the Albion paid what was at the time a record fee of £250,000 to sign Gregory to take over that position. Steve Foster joined at the same time, from Portsmouth.

“I wore every shirt at Villa,” Gregory told Shoot! magazine. “I never had an established position. I was always in the side, but there was a lot of switching around. When Alan Mullery came in for me, he made it clear he wanted me to play at right-back.”

The defender added: “I respect Alan Mullery as a manager and I like the way he thinks about the game.

“Brighton are a very attacking side. There’s nothing the boss loves more than skill. That comes first in his mind. He wants all ten outfield players to attack when they can. That attitude, more than anything else, played a big part in me coming here.”

Gregory started the first 12 games of the season but was then sidelined when he had to undergo an appendix operation.

He returned as first choice right-back in the second half of the season and had a good start to the 1980-81 campaign when he scored in the opening 2-0 home win over Wolves.

His second of the season came against his old club, a header from a pinpoint Gordon Smith cross giving Albion the lead at Villa Park against the run of play. But it was to be an unhappy return for Gregory because the home side fought back to win 4-1.

In November 1980, it looked like Gregory might leave the Goldstone in a proposed cash-plus-player swap for QPR’s Northern Ireland international David McCreery, but the player, settled with his family in Ovingdean, said he wanted to stay at the Goldstone.

“The offer Gregory received was fantastic, but he prefers to stay with us,” chairman Mike Bamber told the Evening Argus. “I regard this as a great compliment.”

The following month, he got the only goal of the game in a 1-0 Boxing Day win at Leicester but in March, with Albion desperate to collect points to avoid the drop, Mullery put Gregory into midfield. He responded with four goals in seven matches, netting in a 1-1 draw away to Man City, grabbing the aforementioned pair at Selhurst Park on Easter Saturday and the opener two days later when Leicester were beaten 2-1 at the Goldstone.

Little did he know it would be his last as a Brighton player because within weeks Mullery quit as manager and Bamber finally couldn’t resist QPR’s overtures.

“I know Alan Mullery turned down a bid but a couple of days after he resigned chairman Mike Bamber accepted QPR’s offer,” Gregory recalled in an interview with Match Weekly. “I hadn’t asked for a move so the news that I was to be allowed to go was quite a surprise.”

He added: “It was a wrench. I found it difficult to turn my back on the lads at Brighton.

“I enjoyed two years at the Goldstone Ground and made many friends, but the prospect of a new challenge at Rangers appealed to me.”

Gregory admitted he used to watch Spurs as a youngster and ironically his two favourite players were Venables and Mullery – and he ended up playing for them both.

Although he dropped down a division to play for QPR, he said: “Rangers are a First Division set up and I’m sure we’ll be back soon.”

Not only did he win promotion with Rangers in the 1983-84 season but, at the age of 29, he earned a call up to the England set-up under Bobby Robson.

He won six caps, the first three of which came against Australia when they played three games (two draws and an England win) in a week in June 1983, in a side also featuring Russell Osman and Mark Barham.

Gregory retained his midfield place for the European Championship preliminary match in September when England lost 1-0 to Denmark at Wembley but he was switched to right-back for the 3-0 away win over Hungary the following month.  

His sixth and final cap came in the Home International Championship match in Wrexham in May 1984 when he was back in midfield as England succumbed to a 1-0 defeat to Wales, a game in which his QPR teammate Terry Fenwick went on as a substitute to earn the first of 20 caps for England.

Gregory continues to demonstrate his love for the game, and particularly Villa, via his Twitter account and earlier in the 2021-22 season, his 32,000 followers saw a heartfelt reaction to the sacking of Dean Smith.

“Dean Smith gave Aston Villa Football Club the kiss of life when the club was an embarrassment to Villa fans and he rekindled the love and passion and success on the field where so many others had failed hopelessly,” said Gregory.

• Pictures from the Albion matchday programme, Shoot! magazine and various online sources.

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