Category Archives: Players

Ashley Young: Should We Sell?

I don’t think even the most wishful Aston Villa supporter would be surprised to see the back of Ashley Young this summer. We’ve all come to terms that, after 4 and half wonderful seasons, our £9.75m bargain will take his thrills – both on the webcam and on the pitch – on to pastures new for the beginning of the 2011-2012 season. After O’Neill’s departure and a relegation scrap, there is no question of why. With one year left on his contract, there is no real question of when. The only unresolved mystery, if you like, is who – Liverpool, Spurs or United? (I hear Chelsea are interested in a part exchange deal but I don’t think they have enough cash to throw our way on top of a Torres swap)

However, I don’t buy into this way of thinking (shock horror?). He is our player, whether he likes it or not, for another season after this. Yes, we will lose him eventually – but why shouldn’t we hang on to him and drain every last ounce of juice from him that we possibly can?

Don’t worry, I can already hear the bemused sighs of disagreement – but bear with me.

Okay, we shouldn’t hold a player against his will. Someone, who doesn’t want to be there is “not fit to wear the shirt”. Maybe. But despite his well documented itchy feet over the past 18 months, Ashley has put in shift after shift, performance after performance, poistion after position for the Aston Villa cause without fail. The former Watford man will also just be a mere 26 years old at the beginning of the new term – that’s more enough time for him to enjoy his peak form with a, dare I say it, bigger club. His international form and stock has never been so valuable. And let’s face it, one more small season with a recent top 6 club in the presence of top country men is not so bad is it? I’m sure he’d quickly get over it and go about making sure the likes of Manchester United are still interested in him the following season.

We’d also of course miss out on a nice transfer fee for the departure of our most prized asset. But was it just me, or was anyone else not a bit ticked off 2 years ago that we lost our best player at the time, our captain, our 12 year stalwart for just £12m? Almost half the price that MON had rated him the previous year. This will no doubt happen again. With just 12 months legally remaining at the club, Young will be shipped off for much less than we deserve. And I’ve got a better idea…

What if we were to keep Ashley Young? Yes, the massive chances are that he will go for free 12 months later. But this, in my opinion, is the risk we have to take – and one which could pay dividends in another way. Mr Houllier will be given another crack at the whip and I’d like to see what he has got with our best team. I’d like to see what he can do with a full pre-season behind him both on the training ground and in the transfer market. So we can keep Ashley, because it is our perogative to do so, and, in doing so, we keep a hold of three of England’s most potent attackers in himself, Bent and Downing. Add to that the bonus of Mr Villa, Gabby Agbonlahor. Add to that, the further blossoming of Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan. Add to that, other ideas Houllier might have. Be it for a sturdier defence, a deeper squad, a permanent capture (and actual use) of an injury-free Michael Bradley. Young might choose to go at a later date anyway despite our best efforts. But surely our best chance of keeping him is off the back of a truly remarkable season – something that might make him think twice, and something which is only possible with our best players still at the club.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d still be 100% resigned that he would go anyway, but before he does, he could leave a legacy behind. He could push us back up the table and make us more attractive for future signings. He, along with our current quality in the squad, could once again re-ignite the Villa so that we are actually prepared for his leaving – and, for me, this is something which will be much more useful, much more valuable, and much more meaningful than an undervalued transfer fee into our kitty.

A great quote by Seth Godin in his business book The Purple Cow sums this way of thinking up perfectly, “it’s safer to be risky – to fortify your desire to do truly amazing things. Once you see that the old ways have nowhere to go but down, it becomes even more imperative to create things worth talking about.”

Randy Lerner has already stated his intent in the Houllier-era by smashing our transfer record. But if we prematurely accept the exit of our best player, we might find it extremely hard to recover from. We might find our selling-club status further copper fastened, we might find other top players looking elsewhere. We’ve been down this road before. But should we keep Ashley for one more year and miss out on the miserly incoming transfer price that’s sure to come our way, it could be the best signing of any this summer. It will restore our position as a club who does as they please and not how others dictate and, with such a quality crop of players already here and coming through, one more year of ‘The Young Effect’ could prove massively benificial in taking us back on the road that we belong. It will prove absolutely crucial in, not only our ability to create things, but in our ability to create things worth talking about.

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How Important is Bent?

As soon as the record-breaking signature of Dazza Bent went through last Tuesday, I rejoiced for the acquisition of what we have been missing for so long. I claimed that it had been years since we had a natural goalscorer, a 20-goal-a-season striker, a household name leading the line. I said that you would have to look past Juan Pablo, to the 20th century days of Dwight Yorke to find our last genuine goal-machine… But I was wrong.

(And no, I’m not referring to Lionel Heskey)

You would have to look longer… Because, as big of a hit that the little Columbian was with the Holte End, as great the things that Yorkie went on to, as undeniable the talents of Dean Saunders were, each and every one of these legends failed to hit the net 20 times in one league campaign for Aston Villa (and to think that many supporters chastised Agbonlahor for “only” scoring 13 last year).

Since the inception of the Premier League, Aston Villa Football Club have not had one player capable of scoring over (or equal to) 20 goals in one single campaign.

Sometimes, you don’t have to look for the problem. Sometimes, the problem is so glaringly obviously that it can seem too simple. But as a result, sometimes the solution is never adopted. For 18 and a half Premier League seasons, the Villa directors have either showed blind ignorance to the suffocating reality that the team had no deadly front man, or they have simply failed to demonstrate enough bottle to follow through and address the hindrance that has been holding this “massive club” back for way too long.

Of course, players like Yorke and Angel surely knew where the goals were and had they had better board backing at the time, better managerial guidance, even better players, then they could well have notched up more impressive tallies. However, only 2 and a half seasons lie between now and when a Villa team (largely the same bunch) worse than this current crop of players notched up 71 league goals without the help of even one terroriser up top.

Modern day Aston Villa are dangerous. They are capable of opening the best defences and creating chances. Players like Downing, Young, Albrighton and Gabby know just exactly how to put dents in the opposition shields… but for too long, we were missing the one figure who knows instinctively just how to put the sword in the enemy’s jugular. Darren Bent banged in 24 league goals last term, supported by team-mates less able and more restricted than what he has alongside him at Villa Park right now.

Saturday’s beautiful evening of putting Man Shitty in their place showed just how little Houllier’s outfit has to change in order to succeed. We don’t have to look long term, we don’t have to hope Milosevic or Angel have brought their shooting boots, we don’t have to toss up a Hail Mary with Bosko Balaban, we don’t have to play to suit Carew or Heskey… we simply have to get 10 of our players to work hard and go about their attacking business like they can and when the chances come, like they always do, we now have a sure-fire Royal Flush up top in place of the unpredictability of 2 pairs.

When Randy Lerner courageously doubled our record transfer fee, in what some would call a financial gamble, and signed the former Sunderland man, he did what we have failed to do in the past with our incoming forwards – eliminate the element of on-field risk. And it is this assurance that Bent will deliver and fill the void of over 20 years, that makes it possible for Aston Villa to finally start turning potential into product.

Recapturing the League Cup 2012

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Hero of the Month (September)

This is not a retraction. This is certainly not an apology. This is just a fair analysis of which Aston Villa member deserves to be accredited with the recognition of having performed the most heroics for the club this past month.

Yet again, young Albrighton has been sniffing about. The 20 year old never ceases to give 100% for his West-Midlands club and sits level with Ashley Young on top of our assists chart (having played one game less). I think it’s also important to remember that this season is the first time Marc was starting on an Aston Villa league line up; and with only 6 premiership games under his belt, it’s heartening that Albrighton is already contributing more than should be expected.

Ashley Young… last month’s hero didn’t let up this time around as the current stats show the number 7 on top of both our assists and goalscoring tallies. He will probably feel hard-done-by to miss out on such a prestigious accolade for a second successive month.

September proved to be a so-so time for an Aston Villa fan. With just one player chipping in with 5 minutes worth at Wembley, we followed a last minute heartbreak at Stoke up with an uninspiring deadlock at home to Bolton. Then, we found a remedy… temporarily at least.

"Where are you?"

I’ve probably been Emile’s biggest critic, consistently – and I am not about to go back on all I have criticized him for. But hey, credit where credit is due. Aston Villa competed 4 times last month. They won twice – the games where big Hess featured. After a sterling contribution to our League Cup victory, I joked that maybe we could forgive and give him yet another chance. In response, Dan from http://astonvillacentral.com/ correctly remarked, “One swallow doesn’t make a summer…”

But for me, two swallows make for a sunny September.

Having succumbed to Sam Alardyce’s cosmic football at Ewood Park, Gerard Houllier introduced his old guard 58 minutes into the cup tie. Lo-and-behold, one minute later, parity was restored as Heskey raced onto a Young through ball, bore down on goal and fired across the keeper with his left foot in rather unfamiliar fashion.

His ball from the right wing, to seal that game’s fate, 18 minutes later was delicious, perfect, Albrighton-esc. And after 30 minutes under his old Liverpool boss, the number 18 had turned the game around and we had a rejuvenated Emile Heskey.

People have said that his 120 minutes of decent football are down to the belief injected in him by Villa’s new French man. But O’Neill’s relentless selection of Heskey was hardly damaging to his confidence. However, at the risk of branding myself a knee-jerk reporter, I believe that there could be some form of substance, for Emile, to Houllier’s arrival.

Think of the best manager you’ve worked under. The man (or woman) who had you playing above yourself. The boss you could relate to, who could relate to you. The one you loved training with. I know, from my own experiences, that if my favourite manager arrived at the club or college where I was currently playing football, despite whatever relationship I have with the current manager and teammates, something would change. It wouldn’t be a conscious change, it wouldn’t be a physical one. But I’d be excited, buzzing, and I would probably once again automatically play above myself, just at the mere sight of my old gaffer. So I can sympathise with Emile’s new esteem.

Of course, as I said, he has only been involved in two games in September, 120 minutes. But when he wasn’t playing this month, we lost to Stoke, drew with Bolton and were down to Blackburn. When he did play, we overturned Rovers (emphatically) and beat Wolves – Houllier secured a 100% record.

The Villa banged in 7 goals in September. When The Mule played, they scored 5. His outstanding header at Mollineaux not only silenced the opposition critics, but it shut me up, and of course sent us on our way to another derby day victory. It meant that Heskey was two from two under the new French regime, and after his Key Goal Contribution to our first goal (his first touch and dangerous, direct run which drew defenders meant that his involvement in Downing’s goal couldn’t go unnoticed) that day, and following his beautiful assist at Ewood Park, Emile ensured that Villa were indebted to him for 4 of our 5 goals throughout his time on the pitch – yes, 80%.

It’s difficult for me to praise the lad so much, because he is still a third choice striker in my Villa team. Nonetheless, responsible for the vast majority of what was good about our September, it was too hard to overlook him this time; and for once, I take my hat off to him, and award September’s Hero of the Month to Emile Heskey.

Thanks for the memories, Emile.

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Hero of the Month (August)

As The Villa prepare for their first piece of September action tonight, I take a look back at the club’s most outstanding member throughout the month of August.

Yes, Kevin MacDonald deserves his credit. He was thrown into the deep-end with just 5 days to prepare, he got the boys motivated, the club united – and despite a couple of bad results, he got us into the top 4; securing a 100% Villa Park league record with zero goals conceded along the way.

But with all the off-field uncertainty heavily circulating in the wake of O’Neill’s resignation (and that uncertainty is still rife with the FFF shenanigans), it’s refreshing to see that a lot of things on the field are falling into place nicely.

It would be fitting to award young Marc Albrighton with the coveted Hero of the Month accolade. After just 5 appearances (one start) last year, the 20 year old has already matched this in the first month of the new season (but has started 5 times) and chipped in impressively with 3 assists in the first two games. Getting stuck in and coming of age, he just misses out this month.

Winner

It was much, much too difficult to overlook Ashley Young however. Being used in a new role behind the front man, boy he is thriving. His anticipation and quick feet, not to mention his excellent first touch, make him such a danger that it’s hard to see how we can make room for both Agbonlahor and Carew. The freedom afforded to Ashley is extremely comforting as a Villa supporter and knowing that he can pop up on either wing or come through the centre without the restrictions of a flank position makes his new role a natural selection for him.

Ashley Young…

So far this season, Aston Villa have banged in 7 goals. Of these, our number 7 has played a major role in 5. I keep a tally of all our goals and when I credit someone with a ‘Key Goal Involvement’, they need to have a telling contribution to the goal and not simply a pass back to the man who assisted – a game changing input merits a Key Goal Involvement.

Young has provided two Key Goal Involvements in that without his input, the goals may very well not have taken place. On top of this, the 25 year old successfully completed 3 direct assists (more impressively, they were 3 balls which many others would have struggled to make). Furthermore, Ashley won a penalty against Newcastle which, had it been converted, would have changed the landscape of THAT St James’ Park memory (he also should have had a stonewall penalty against Rapid Wien).

Moreover, the transfer talk involving our prized asset was so unsettling that when Young committed to Villa with such assurance, it was not only a confidence boost to the club, but a real testament to the substance of the main man. And now we hear talk of a new contract on the horizon.

Not only this, but as the only Villa based player to win a spot in the national side, Ashley Young’s key role in 71.4% of our goals didn’t go unnoticed and it is with genuine ease that I award him the title of my meaningless Hero of the Month.

Congratulations, Ashley.

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Thanks For The Memories, James – But Good Riddance

Time to move on

Last season’s best player wants to leave and our transfer dealings are restricted within the confines of a sell-to-buy policy. Grim? Maybe, but this is the situation and we have to get on with it.

Yes, James Milner was superb at times over the last 12 months; he scored 7 league goals from midfield and contributed to our cause with 12 assists. He showed glimpses of brilliance on the world stage in June and ultimately made the loss of our 12 year stalwart (who will remain nameless) a smooth, if not improved, transition. “Irreplaceable” you might say. However, I wouldn’t.

Of course, when I first heard Martin O’Neill’s admission that our number 8’s head was turned, I was gutted. It couldn’t be that, for a second year, my favourite footballer would sell his soul for the devil’s riches. Thankfully, however, I had already grieved this hurt and I soon realised that the loss of Milly wouldn’t compare to the aftermath of Man City’s first summer signing last year. And then it hit me: James Milner was just a rebound. All along, I had been using him to sooth the scar left by our former number 6 – he had his uses, don’t get me wrong; but now that he’s going, Villa will have no problem moving on, and do you know what? We’ll be okay.

Although it will be extremely difficult to find an established, and effective, central midfielder within our miniscule £12m transfer cap, the perceived “disastrous” sale of James Milner is now actually very “necessary”. Because, as our overly generous American owner has, for once, decided to tighten his purse strings, Villa would have been in big trouble this coming year – but for the gluttonous naivety of Manchester City. The uncontrollable spending which is destroying football as we know it over at Eastlands is, without doubt, making progression harder; but by exploiting the Citizens’ reckless attitude, the claret side of Birmingham is offered a lifeline which could continue to kickstart our climb to the top – at a time when Aston Villa should be stalled on a hill without the assurance of a handbrake.

For me, City can become that ally you have when playing Monopoly whose fortunes will never be surpassed, and who has no problem paying over the odds for your hot property. They will never be caught, but they can help carry you to the top with them.

As the club prepares to enter the transfer market with an empty bank account, it is an ironic saving grace that Man Shitty have declared an interest in our most valuable player. I’ve argued that we have to keep the likes of Milner at Trinity Road if we are to remain an attractive habitat; but should the Villains desperately hang on to the want-away England star for another season, the potential kitty from the sale of our fringe players will not be sufficient to even change, never mind improve, on last year. And let’s be honest: as much as we stepped on last year (in the cup runs and increased points tally), we were caught out.

Opposition sides were all too prepared for the approach of a Martin O’Neill team in its fourth season, and a lot of the times we were thwarted. Teams were willing to treat our deep-lying outfit with caution and often refused to over-commit – and thus, suffocating the potential of our counterattacking prowess in which Downing, Young, Gabby, Carew and, of course, Milner were pivotal. Failing to win 11 of our 19 games at Villa Park last year was testament to our inability to break teams down; and indeed to our vulnerability at coping with sides who were as equally prepared to hit teams on the break. On top of this, a meek total of 52 league goals banged in last term (the 8th most in the league), shows just how far we really are from Champions League football. Defensively we were water tight; but our inability to put weaker opponents to the sword ultimately created the failure to acquire that elusive 6 more points.

In conclusion, we have become much too predictable as an attacking force and the variation of talent which could be welcomed aboard for the same valuation as an overpriced James Milner is essential.

Stephen Ireland

Graceful

So, he didn’t have the best of seasons. But the 23 year old suffered the most from Manchester City’s ridiculous spending. Making room for more “household names”, the Sky Blues unfairly asked Stephen Ireland to ply his trade from wide areas (and I’m talking out-and-out winger positions), and of course from a deeper midfield role under the new defence-minded Italian regime.

But if we rewind to the 08/09 season, the Irish man was Mark Hughes’ main threat, cutting teams open with his creative instincts and death touch when allowed to roam through the centre and off the front man. It’s a cliché, I know, but his 9 goals and 9 assists that year were so efficiently devastating that it was, at times, reminiscent of a hot knife cutting through melting butter – at the tender age of 22.

And as a supporter of his native country: yes, I’ll admit, he has caused his fair share of trouble; but when Stephen lines out in a green shirt, the Republic then have at least one dimension to their boring, unimaginative play – I mean, boy is he crucial. Scoring 4, largely individual, goals in just 6 appearances playing in an already below-par team furthered hindered by the misguidance of Steve Staunton, Ireland banished any perception that he couldn’t play in a 4-4-2 formation. Starring in the centre for his country, Stephen didn’t shirk his defensive or tactical duties, and his 4 goals from this position were all four match-winners as an uninspired outfit took 12 Qualifying points, each through the minimum winning margin.

No other club on the planet would deem such a gem surplus to requirements – particularly if he was nurtured through their underage system. Fortunately for Villa, however, “Citeh” are a brainless club. Having already pawned off Daniel Sturridge, Mancini is doing his best to have Onouha and Richards frozen out; and valuing a raw James Milner almost £20m more than the effortless Stephen Ireland, any work completed within the Man City academy (as good as it has been) is deemed a pointless waste of time in the shambolic rigmarole that is the MCFC boardroom.

Not only would I actually prefer a Stephen Ireland to a James Milner, but to have that swap with an extra £20m thrown into the bargain would be daylight robbery – and exactly the sort of steal we need in today’s sell-to-buy climate. City are surely buying their way to the title; but last summer, we acquired PFA Team of the Year member Richard Dunne for £18m less than the clumsy Joleon Lescott; and this summer we could be obtaining the improved services of Stephen Ireland for £20m less than workhorse James Milner – therefore, as a Villa fan I say, “Long live the Sheikh”.

Opportunity

If the part exchange deal did take place involving either Ireland or Bellamy, we would be left with a more talented alternative – perfect for the necessary change the AVFC attack needs for the coming season. Moreover, the extra cash obtained will be used effectively to add extra dimensions to a thin squad.

I’m not saying that they are targets or that they are even interested, but the rumoured links with Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane are heart-warming. Whilst I don’t think that McGeady is better than Young or Downing, I’ve witnessed his 2nd half introductions for the Republic of Ireland on numerous occasions and I’m convinced that his ability to lift the crowd and spark a game into life can be just the tonic our poor home win ratio needs.

Robbie Keane (or a similar player), in my opinion, will be a steal at £10m. Yes, he’s ageing, but he is good. Overflowing with flair, the Irish captain is the perfect man to get in between the customary positional lines of football and bring other players into the game. Feeding off target men for his entire international career, Keane is also one of the best forwards in the world at anticipating flick-ons and getting in behind the opposition defence.

The possibility of Aston Villa acquiring Ireland’s 3 most exciting players at the expense of the ever-willing, but limited talent of, James Milner is too good a chance to miss. Jimmy was great for two years, but was there ever a sense of emotional attachment with the wanderlust professional? He did his job, he did it well, but Milner was never Aston Villa.

Now, by replacing him, we can bring in critical firepower which will deal with the onset predictability of the club – without spending a single penny. And after overseeing 71 league goals (the 3rd most) in just his second year in charge, with a less able outfit, Martin O’Neill has the capability to get the Villains firing again – he just needs different ammunition to wear down the bullet proof vests some teams have adapted to wear against us.

Therefore, strangely, I’m hoping to see the back of James Milner sooner rather than later. Clearly, he didn’t appreciate the punt MON took on him as he looked for the exit doors at St. James’ Park. He doesn’t acknowledge the work undergone to turn him into an international standard player (quite similar to another particular Man City footballer). And he is so inpatient at the age of 24 that he couldn’t wait one more season to see if the Villa project comes together.

Not only don’t I want that type of personnel infecting the changing rooms at Bodymoor Heath, but I think that we can do a lot better than James Milner. So I say, “Thanks for the memories, James – but good riddance” because we don’t need you. What we do need is to cash his price tag and get to work bringing in the different types of ability which our team so badly needs. James Milner was crucial to an outfit who were capable of scoring just 52 league goals. Now, Aston Villa needs 3 or 4 variable elements who are crucial to an outfit who can once again score 70+ goals. But this time, we will be supported by a mean defence. And this time, we could go that one step further – without the services of one, James Milner.

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Do Villa Play Their Best Football With Heskey?

No… they don’t (it’s as simple as that).

Should anyone feel that they do not need to read such an unnecessary blog post to decide their answer for the above question, then please be my guest and click the ‘x’ button at the top right corner of your screen. If you choose to continue, below is what sparked a post I never thought I would have to write.

Whenever Villa played their best football it was with Emile Heskey…

I’m not a fan of negative writing. I know I have been guilty of this in the past but I like to think that any criticism I have of Aston Villa is largely constructive and contributes to the greater good of improving the club (or at least ways in which it could be improved). Of course, I am bias, but I don’t think that any of my opinions are unreasonable. I try to support a lot of my writing with facts; although I recognise that subjectivity is the fuel of football debate and the beauty of the one, true international language. Nevertheless, sometimes, we have to be critical.

But I will not, for example, downplay the obvious effect our 23 year old Agbonlahor has on the team because of his inability to win the Golden Boot (like some ignoramus writers). I will not ridicule someone’s view that Milner should play on the right for England, and then later argue that this is his best position and the reason why he is actually not so important for his club (like some hypocritical, and inaccurate bloggers). I like to research the unarguable datum and undergo essential performance analyses of both the players and the staff (some people obliviously dismiss this as unimportant, yet it is the same mode of work in which all Premier League clubs will officially recognise as means of progression). Of course, sometimes I just like writing. I like presenting my ideas and I occasionally like to reflect football in a poetic light. However, how could I ignore a sentence such as that which is quoted above? How could I accept an unsupported argument suggesting that Emile Heskey is pivotal to the best football of Aston Villa?

Well, I couldn’t accept this.

On the 5th March, I wrote a damning crtitique (https://myavfc.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/emile-heskey-conman-extraordinaire-2/) of Heskey’s performances for the club I love so well; but after his through ball to Steven Gerrard against the USA earlier in the summer, the myth that he brings other players into the game was once again vibrant – despite the fact that apart from the goal, he was responsible for just 2 more final balls in the game, and these were two unsuccessful flick ons (he also won one shootable free kick).

At the time of that post, Emile had notched up 3 goals (the same as Richard Dunne) and 1 assist. He then finished the season with 3 goals (the same as Richard Dunne) and 2 assists. And with 2 further League Cup goals, the former England international finished the season with a tally of one goal for every eight games played (5 goals in 40 appearances). Obviously, he didn’t start all of these matches (although he started the majority of them), but what was more interesting was to find that similar to his England career, 4 of The Mule’s 5 goals came in a comfortable winning margin of at least two goals for his club (all of his competitive international goals came when England won by at least three goals).

Furthermore, Heskey did not contribute to the squad with even one forced own goal or by being awarded at least one penalty. Villa banged in 80 goals in all domestic competitions last season – Heskey had a hand in just 10% of these (making him non-existent for 9 out of every 10 AVFC goals).

Despite his clear ineffectiveness for the cause, and his inability to properly bring other players into the game, maybe we do play our best football when Emile Heskey is on the field.

However, going right back to the second game of the season, the fluid 4-5-1 we adopt was once again proved popular as a ‘Heskeyless’ Aston Villa not only grabbed 3 at Anfield, but completely outplayed, and outsmarted, the league runners-up in their own backyard. Heskey was introduced for the last 10 uneventful minutes.

The following game, Villa recorded probably their most comfortable, and pleasing, victory of the season at home to Fulham (who had finished just one place below us) in the absence of the all-important-Heskey. The return fixture was equally as pleasing (although not as attractive) and the big man did feature – marking his performance with the game’s most fouls.

Thankfully, Heskey was missing for the arrival of Bolton Wanderers at Villa Park as the home side enjoyed a rare 60% of possession; not to mention their 19 recorded shots, and of course, 5 goals.

Villa also completed dominating performances away to Hull and Birmingham without the “services” of EH and they turned over eventual league champions, Chelsea, with the Carew-Gabby partnership. However, the memorable Old Trafford success (as unconvincing as it was) included Emile and he was also a member of the team which knocked 5 past Championship outfit Burnley. But it is ridiculously clear that, compared to Gabby and Big John, Heskey’s contribution to Villa’s season was extremely minimal. He was either excluded or had a limited involvement in my favourite league performances this year, and it’s not as if he has a great effect record to fall back on (meanwhile Agbonlahor has had a direct responsibility in 43% of the possible goals he could have this year; whilst Carew made one more appearance than Heskey – yet still managed to knock in 16 goals, grab 5 assists, and win 4 penalties). Heskey also played either a bitpart role or a second string duty in the FA Cup run which saw his centre forward competitor (JC) grab the competition’s golden boot.

Prolific

Both Villa’s success, and at times, their best football this year has not taken place “with” Emile Heskey by any means. In actual fact, it took place in spite of Emile Heskey, who if anything, did his best to hinder our performances. I could continue to decipher his appaling form; his apparent need to fall over at the sight of any ball; his inability to hold the ball up and the lack of success from his flick ons; I could simply point to the fact that John Carew was responsible for 20 more goals (in the same amount of games) as his clubmate; or even conduct a survey of who has been the most frustrating Villa player of the past 10 years. But I don’t need to. It would be an insult to our players, and to our fans, if I did. In actuality, it is already an insult that even one “fan” declared that Heskey is associated with our best football – particularly with zilch signs of backing up such a ludicrous statement with any kind of reasoning.

As I say, I don’t like to be negative – but sometimes, black has to be separated from white in the reckless free-for-all that an unjustified grey area grants. A grey area derived from such conjecture as the quote which started this piece. I don’t like to pick on players (which I am doing with Emile) and consistently single them out for crticism, but I am adamant that I am a fair man who is simply looking to start the season in a positive manner – and who has his own specific idea of how to achieve this. Firstly, I just hope that Neil Lennon falls for the charm of the World Cup hero and ships him north of the border so I can finally put Heskey-gate behind me for good.

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The Underrated Agbonlahor

Yes, he misses too many one-on-ones and we’ve seen our number 11 fluff some gilt-edged chances; he still hasn’t delivered that supposedly essential 20-goal-season and he’s not going to South Africa… but show me someone who “wouldn’t be that bothered if we sold Gabby” and I’ll show you a fool.

This piece has been inspired by a recent article on The Villa Blog (http://www.thevillablog.co.uk/aston-villa-blog/aston-villa-rumours/manchester-city-do-not-want-gabby-but-wouldnt-p70-million-be-nice-for-all-three/) where the author (a great Villa blogger) Damian Dugdale suggested that our 23 year old striker has had too many chances to impress in a claret and blue shirt. Comparing Agbonlahor’s effect similar to that of the infamous Darius Vassell, I felt that I couldn’t let this criticism (he says it isn’t criticism, but it is) pass without veto; and therefore, I have decided to put forth an unnecessary defence of Gabriel Agbonlahor.

At the tender age of 19 (and later, 20), Agbonlahor broke into Villa’s first XI in O’Neill’s first year in charge and featured in every possible game he could have that year (being used as a substitute just once). Playing on the right flank for the majority of that season (and still banging in 10 goals), it was clear that we had a real prospect on our books that would bring so much more than just a genuine goalscoring threat.

In fact, in the following 3 seasons of MON’s tenure, Gabby would miss just 5 league games and of course, improve his goal-to-games ratio in direct correlation with his age. But with niggling, unsatisfied mumbles about his failure to transform himself into a forward who will guarantee at least 20 goals, Agbonlahor has not received the unanimous appreciation he should have. Despite being one year shy of 24, some spectators at Villa Park have refused to acknowledge just how important Gabby is up top for his home club at such an early stage in his career; but instead bemoan the fact that he isn’t keeping up with the likes of Didier Drogba in the scoring charts every year. However, even world-beater Wayne Rooney couldn’t produce 20 league goals in his 5 years at United before he reached the age of 24. Instead, England’s only World Cup hope averaged 13 league goals pro rata (the same return Gabby provided this year) – and this playing for a team who secured three consecutive league titles. And how could we forget the concerns about Fernando Torres’ inability to bang in 20 league goals in a season (indeed, it wasn’t until he was 24 as well when he did finally crack it)?

But just like it would be ridiculous to compare our local striker to the uniquely unsurpassable traits of such world-class forwards like Torres and Rooney; it would be absurd to judge Aston Villa’s 23 year old jewel on his decent strike rate alone.

Because even though Agbonlahor has secured the designation as Villa’s highest league scorer, the effect he has on a team consistently dominated in possession is unmatchable. As per the deep nature of MON’s game; when Agbonlahor is missing, Villa are clueless. It is impossible to win games with 10 men pinned in their own half without a Gabby Agbonlahor. Rare goal opportunities will arrive, but without someone as competitive as Gabby; someone who can run the channels, hold up play, outmuscle defenders and obviously get in behind, then most teams would buckle under pressure. The boys played two poor teams at Villa Park at the peak of their Champions League climb; but without our go-to-man, we came out of the Wolves and Sunderland home games with 4 dropped points.

Even England’s recent form has seen them outplayed and struggling without an Agbonlahor. Trying to work their unusual spells of possession from their pressurized defence, it is a saving grace that England still have world-class individuals like Rooney and Gerrard who can make something happen from nothing. Indeed, 4 of their last 5 goals have come from a set piece, an offside handball and of course, two own goals. And if Capello persists on continuing to emulate the Aston Villa style of play when the Finals come around, England’s best bet would be to play Agbonlahor – otherwise, relentless pressure from even superior opposition will ensure that the 3 lions’ 44 year wait for glory becomes at least 48.

I’m not saying that I think Gabby is worth his place in the England first team (not yet anyway), but if the management struggles any longer to make a crop of talented players control a game, then it makes sense that they should borrow our “out man”. I’m not even implying that I think Agbonlahor is Villa’s best player; but this year, he has demonstrated that he is probably our most important player.

That is why it is unacceptable that one of the most popular Villa forums is arguing that Nathan Delfouneso could be more effective than Gabby,

I tell you this; if we played The Fonz in 38 games next season, he’d get thirteen goals – maybe even more.”

Not only does this undermine how well Agbonlahor has done to score 16 goals in a season where Villa’s counterattacking prowess was anticipated and thwarted by a lot of teams; it demonstrates blind ignorance to the quality and improvement shown by our front man whilst leading the line. Delfouneso looks sharp and I’m excited about his potential; but to suggest that our 19 year old ‘one to watch’ would do a better job than the established Agbonlahor is unforgiveable.

Not only this, but Gabby has been much more effective in front of goal this season than has been recognised. Playing 44 games, the plot is a lot thicker than his 16 goal contribution would suggest. Because of the games Agbonlahor has played, Aston Villa have banged in 65 goals and of these, Gab has forced two own goals and won 3 penalties. Moreover, the former winger weighed in with 7 assists; meaning he had a direct hand in 28 of Villa’s goals this year. Therefore, of the matches Gabriel Agbonlahor has featured in this season, he has been responsible for over 43% of Aston Villa’s goals.

So, ignoring the fact that he is quite clearly a top class performer in the claret shirt anyway, I wouldn’t expect even the best players to contribute to almost half of their club’s goals (and I certainly couldn’t see Delfouneso doing so). The three penalties won by Gabby also came in arguably our 3 biggest games: whilst trailing by away goals in the League Cup semi against Blackburn, Agbonlahor not only gave us the opportunity to score from 12 yards, but brought about the justified sending off of Christopher Samba. Secondly, in the final of the same competition (against the champions), Gabby stepped up his game, won a penalty for our only goal, and we all know what the fate of Vidic should have been. And being outplayed by our sworn enemies at home, Gabby got in behind and drew the defender (who also should have seen red) into a foul in the box, and the result was yet another second city triumph.

It is for his big-game-performances, incredible goal involvement, and obvious effectiveness for his local team that I deemed the defence of Gabriel Agbonlahor “unnecessary”. At just 23, the future England star is already an integral member of a big club and although he has a long way to go, if he continues to progress at the same rate he has done, we will certainly be the only losers if certain fans get their wish and we decide to sell him.

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