By Chris Kemp
Nicklas Helenius has more than likely played his last game for Aston Villa. After signing for the club in the summer of 2013 for less than £1m, he made just a handful of senior appearances before returning to his former club in Denmark on loan. And yet when he did take the field for Villa, he looked like he could really make a contribution – and often did. So… what happened?
Helenius signed for Villa on the back of a great few seasons with Aalborg BK (currently managed by former Villa hero Kent Nielsen). He was named player of the season in the Danish Superliga ahead of his move to Villa Park.
One of a handful of new recruits to head out on the pre-season tour, he took just six minutes to announce his arrival with a goal, after coming on as a second-half substitute against Rodinghausen in Germany, to give Villa the lead. He only narrowly missed netting the winner from a corner at the end of the match. Two games later, making his second appearance of the tour, Helenius once again gave Villa the lead with a close-range header, just minutes after coming on for the second half.
One player missing from that pre-season tour of Germany was Christian Benteke… which is where the conspiracy theories as to what happened with Helenius begin…
The saviour of the previous season, Benteke’s head had been turned, he wanted out and he put in a transfer request. Helenius was quoted in the Birmingham Mail saying: “”It is not something that I take much joy from even though it improves my chances. We need the strongest possible squad for the upcoming season and he was definitely one of the players that I was looking forward to learning from.”
Spurs and Arsenal were among the teams salivating at the chance of getting their hands on the Belgian star but were balking at the high price tag of £25m. But what if Villa knew Benteke and/or his agent were looking elsewhere and Helenius was brought in as his immediate replacement?
Or even more sneakily, what if Helenius was brought in to call team Benteke’s bluff and suggest Villa could get by with Helenius leading the line and Benteke playing in the reserves ahead of what could be the striker’s first World Cup?
After all, for around 750k, it was a modest price so that Lambert could play hard ball with Benteke’s agent (‘Well, we’ve just signed another 6ft4 striker, so your client can rot on the bench, if it comes down to it’ and also get a squad player at the same time.
Fall From Grace
July 19, 2013: Against all odds, Christian Benteke signed a new contract and puts all talk of a move away from Villa Park to bed (for now).
Benteke scored a hat-trick against Crewe once the team got back to England to finish their pre-season preparation, plus one more against Walsall, one against Shamrock Rovers and two against Malaga.
For the first game of the season, a memorable 3-1 win over Arsenal, Helenius was an unused substitute. As the season went on, Jordan Bowery would make 19 league appearances for Villa. Helenius, just three.
The Libor Factor
So with Helenius already fighting for a spot on the bench, the signing of Libor Kozák is puzzling. The big Czech was bought in September (Helenius was signed in June) with Paul Lambert saying: “We’ve been on this one for the last few months, trying to bring him to the club… He’ll take that burden off Christian and he’ll add greatly to what we’ve got, with the likes of Nicklas Helenius, who’s a different type of player.”
Is (then) 22-year-old 6ft 4ins striker Helenius really all that different from 24-year-old 6ft 3ins striker Kozák? But what if Lambert still wasn’t convinced he would get Kozák so brought in Helenius? And then what if Kozák was always considered as the old, new long-term replacement for Benteke should he be snapped up after a successful World Cup?
Was Helenius a mere short-term pawn in Lambert’s long game?
Once the season got started, there was talk of a huge transfer for Helenius before he had even kicked a ball for the Villa in a competitive game. Several tabloid claimed Real Madrid were sniffing around the striker offering Villa triple the transfer fee that had paid a month earlier and giving the Dane a chance to lead their B-team until ready for the big league.
Had his value really gone up 300% before he had made his senior debut? Especially as, with Benteke now staying, our demand for a big target man was considerably less.
What if there was no actual interest at all? What if the player had some personal difficulties (read on) and the press rumour was encouraged by Villa to alert clubs to his availability and also make a profit?
What if, with Benteke playing as the lone striker in a 4-3-3 and Helenius seemingly behind Jordan Bowery in the pecking order, a big money move away from Villa Park before the numbers had been given the chance to fully stick on his shirt would suit everyone and this was just putting him in the window?
It is very likely, despite all his promise, his goals, his potential and his height Helenius will be remembered for one thing in a Villa shirt – keeping his cool when losing his shorts.
In the League Cup against Spurs (a dismal 4-0 defeat at home) Helenius was through on goal, Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen falls, grabs hold of Helenius’s shorts and pulls them down to his knees. Helenius kept his balance but blasted his shot high when a lesser man (let’s pick a name at random: Jermain Defoe) might have gone down for the penalty.
The Heart of the Matter
Let’s go back to AaB, where Helenius played in their short-lived Champions League campaign since arriving on loan.
The Danish champions of last season were knocked out by Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus. Kent Nielsen was recently asked about Helenius’s performances for the team.
“He is struggling and is out of form,” said Nielsen a month ago. “In Denmark, if you don’t play for the first team, you play for the reserves. The players on the bench for a game will play for the reserves often the next day. All players should be match-fit.”
People have said that Helenius struggled with injuries behind the scenes, but what if he was just another member of the bomb squad? Because his heart wasn’t in it any more…because he had other things on his mind.
In the same interview, Nielsen touched on a reason that may be at the root of all the Helenius shenanigans:
“Nicklas just became a father to twin girls a few weeks ago, so I’m sure that’s another reason for his struggles, but…” Wait, what? Did we know that?
Helenius’s agent seemed to imply the striker wanted a move, specifically to Aalborg, and in a hurry, last July.
“Nicklas has one big wish: to return home with AaB. But he cannot wait indefinitely,” said agent Mads Bach Lund in a Scandinavian newspaper.
He added: “The stay at Aston Villa has not gone as we hoped.”
Home sickness and impeding fatherhood seems to have played a big part in what has been happening behind the scenes when you look at the timing (it takes nine months to have a kid, for those that don’t know!)
It seems Helenius was sent back on loan to his home country so his partner could give birth to their twins (not easy) in his home country and with full family support, and that he was always going to stay there afterwards.
If Helenius never wears a Villa shirt again, his brief time at B6 was certainly intriguing – one of transfer moves that never happened, bomb squad membership, twins, and a pair of white underpants exposed in the penalty box…