| John Gregory is talking more like a man
who fears the sack rather than the manager who steered Aston Villa to
the top of the FA Carling Premiership for 14 weeks before Christmas.
The 1-0 defeat at Tottenham on Saturday, cruelly delivered by Tim Sherwood's bizarre 88th minute decider for Spurs, stretched Villa's dismal slump to eight games without a win - including seven defeats.
Even though Villa still have realistic hopes of a another UEFA Cup place at the end of the season, Gregory sounds increasingly tormented.
``It's extremely frustrating to lose so late to a scrappy goal like that, but I've got to face facts - we got nothing again,'' Gregory said.
Not so long ago, Gregory was in line, according to many pundits, for the award of Manager of the Year.
And there's no doubt about the impact the straight-talking Londoner has made on the Midlands' biggest club since taking over from Brian Little just a year ago.
Villa chairman Doug Ellis felt obliged to issue ``hands off'' warnings when former Wycombe Wanderers manager Gregory was linked with a spectacular move to Atletico Madrid earlier this season.
But there are now clear indications that Gregory is worried what Ellis, a man with a trigger-happy reputation when it comes to hiring and firing, might do unless he can arrest Villa's alarming slide.
Gregory said: ``I've made a cock-up or two in this job and I've admitted to them as have other people when they've cocked up.
``But I hope we will all be judged, myself and the players and the rest of the staff, over the full course of 38 games in a season. Wherever we finish is where we will deserve to finish and I think that is the only fair way to make judgement.
``We took pride in being top of the table for so long but we never lost our sense of perspective when we were top. We didn't jump up and down about it. And we are not panicking now that we are having this difficult period.
``But you can be top for as long as you like. If you've got nothing to show for it at the end of the season it doesn't count for a lot and it won't get me many house points with the board of directors.
``First is first and the rest is nowhere. You know that as well as I do.''
The ambition to break the stranglehold on the League title which Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have exerted over the last 18 years since Villa last won it is obviously uppermost in Ellis's mind and he must have thought the chance was on when Gregory's team were three points clear in November after consecutive victories over Spurs and Southampton.
But they have won only four of 17 League games since then and are now 16 points adrift of leaders United.
Only the UEFA Cup slot is left as a realistic ambition but Ellis already has the T-shirt for that one and may feel it is a little out of vogue.
Yet Gregory is clearly referring to Liverpool's fallen giants when he points out: ``There is a very big club that used to consistently win championships not so long ago and who are now considerably below us in the table. Nobody seems to mention that.''
Gregory saw good signs in defeat at White Hart Lane and claimed: ``We didn't deserve to get nothing from that game. There was a big improvement on the last six or seven weeks and I give the lads a great deal of credit.
``We've got two home games now against Chelsea and West Ham which I'm convinced we are capable of winning and we can still have a very positive finish to the season.''
He is banking on new £5.5million signing Steve Stone sparking a revival and has promised him ``a more advanced role in future'' after being given the onerous debut task of shadowing Tottenham's David Ginola.
Stone was sent off for two fouls on the Frenchmen the last time he had that job for Nottingham Forest in November but was only booked this time and, after being given the chasing in the first half, eventually succeeded in curbing him to the extent that Ginola was substituted 10 minutes from the end.
Villa were lucky to escape a penalty award against them just before the hour when referee Peter Jones failed to spot Riccardo Scimeca barging over Les Ferdinand as the Tottenham striker went for a cross.
But Gregory's players were convinced Spurs goalkeeper Ian Walker should have been sent off in the first five minutes for bringing down Alan Thompson on the edge of the box.
``If the ref gives a free-kick and the keeper goes off it is a different game,'' said Villa striker Paul Merson, who could be in trouble with the Football Association after adding: ``The ref was a bit of a joke, really.
``We deserved at least a point. I couldn't ever see Tottenham scoring but the way we've played it is not just a case of hopes or maybes. We know we can turn things around now.''
Gregory claims he will keep his sense of humour no matter what happens. Yet he was clearly infuriated with Spurs sub Steffen Iversen after an explosive finish to the game.
Match-winner Sherwood lit the fuse with a rude gesture to midfield rival Thompson immediately after scoring and then, after a spate of bookings in the closing seconds, Gregory chased Iversen down the tunnel with a volley of expletives as the players came off at the end.
``Yes, I was upset with him,'' admitted Gregory. ``He stuck his head
into Thompson's face and that's not a particularly clever thing to do,
but I don't suppose the fourth official noticed it.''