Few could have expected that a player whose reputation was left in ruins last season would be welcomed back as a player by Steve Bruce.
It was argued that the crime sheet was now too long, Gabby Agbonlahor had been given too many chances and had disgraced himself as ‘Club Captain’ in the infamously bad 2015/16 season when Aston Villa were relegated. He scored only a single goal all season and had courted controversy pretty much throughout the entire campaign. Yet here we are again, debating the relative merits of his return four months into the 2016/17 season.
Here’s the thing though, Gabby is no ordinary Aston Villa player. He is ‘Mr. Aston Villa’ and the longest serving player in the dressing room. Gabby has been an ever present during the Lerner years and he witnessed countless managers crash and burn trying to turn the club around. Therefore, when you talk about Gabby, you need to not only consider his ability as a player but also his power and influence at the club.
Outstaying His Welcome
Gabby topped the list of players most fans wanted to sell this summer (also 77% of MOMS readers never expected him to play for the club again) but many doubted whether he would ever actually leave. Those instincts were proved correct.
Unlike Ashley Young or James Milner, Gabby had never flown the nest to a Champions League club, as no such offers from such clubs ever arrived for him. During the past few seasons Gabby has mulishly refused to budge from the club despite the efforts of various managers to sell him, like an adult child who refuses to leave his parents house.
In January 2016, Gabby was supposedly suffering from back pain throughout the entire month and refused all attempts, by former manager Remi Garde, to move him on. On 27 December 2015, Gabby had taken to his Instagram account to post an ambiguous quote he knew would attract a response from his die hard followers which read:
“Never let anyone tell you how to live your life, it’s called your life for a reason. You make the decisions.” Gabby wrote underneath, ‘decisions decisions‘. The post attracted the typical response from his most loyal fans, “Don’t leave!”
In true Gabby style, he also managed to avoid Roberto Di Matteo’s attempts to move him out of the club this summer. Most notably, turning down a loan move to Reading.
New owner Tony Xia had arrived at the club promising discipline and reform. He wasn’t exactly the Villa forward’s number one fan. It was suggested that Xia would pay players off if necessary, although he never actually took this extreme step unlike Tony Fernandes did, for example, when he cleaned out the rotten QPR dressing room.
Following the close of the summer 2016 transfer window there were suggestions that the 30-year-old striker would ‘consider’ a move to the MLS in January. Fans were again sceptical how seriously Gabby would ‘consider’ such a move.
‘GABBY HAS MULISHLY REFUSED TO BUDGE FROM THE CLUB DESPITE THE EFFORTS OF VARIOUS MANAGERS TO SELL HIM, LIKE AN ADULT CHILD WHO REFUSES TO LEAVE HIS PARENTS HOUSE.’
Those who had observed him as a player for many years accurately predicted that he would wait it out until Di Matteo left and try his luck with the next manager. Now he has been brought back into the fold, again, by Steve Bruce there is a lingering feeling that Gabby has once again played the club like a fiddle.
Gabby had previously waited things out when Gerard Houllier was manager at the club in the 2010/11 season. Gabby’s family, he said, had advised him to ‘dig in‘ and wait.
The French manager and Villa striker enjoyed a distant relationship and Gabby purportedly clashed with Houllier’s back room team of Robert Duverne (also Remi Garde’s fitness coach) and Gary McAllister. Gabby had always enjoyed the ear of Randy Lerner and felt secure enough as Lerner’s favoured player to heavily criticise Houllier in an interview, when he left the club:
“At one stage I did think about it [leaving], I thought if this is how it is going to stay and the manager is going to stay here, with this formation, then I would have to leave. It hurt more as a Villa fan and local boy. Luckily the manager left and McAllister left as well. It killed me a lot. It did not help me with England. The manager had his formations and he was not going to change that. Gérard was not much of a talker. It was more McAllister, but he was not very good to be honest. I did not really get on with him.”
Looking back, Gabby had failed to take on board Houllier’s advice that he had gained too much muscle weight in the gym. Villa fans had noticed a big change in Gabby’s physique when he returned for 2010/11 pre season. However, Gabby’s new physique did not appear to help him.
Gabby had burst onto the scene under Martin O’Neill in previous seasons as a lithe, supple and fleet of foot striker who out paced most Premier League defenders. Gabby rejected the suggestion that his new muscle bound frame was an impediment to his speed and suppleness and remarked disdainfully of Houllier, “I don’t really think he knew what he was saying.”
Houllier had the last laugh though as his observation was proved to be correct. Gabby had improved impressively during O’Neill’s years with a high point of 13 league goals in the 2009/10 season. His goal returns following the creation of his new physique were far less impressive and he never reached double figures again in the league.
Around him, the Premier League was changing. A large influx of more technically gifted players from around the world arrived and defenders were fast now too, with many former wingers converted into full backs.
One thing that rarely changed during this time was Aston Villa’s plan A in tactics, the counter attack through Gabby. He had become an important player for managers who were struggling to implement a Plan B or C. Paul Lambert was allegedly, according to the Independent, fearful of the power Gabby wielded in the dressing room and his influence with owner, Randy Lerner.
Gabby was an ever present in Lambert’s teams despite Lambert losing his back room team – twice – in the space of six months. Both sets of back room staff left because of clashes with ‘senior players in the dressing room‘. Roy Keane, on leaving Aston Villa, predicted that the dressing room would get the club relegated and Villa were indeed relegated only a year after he left.
When Tim Sherwood arrived at the club, Gabby was in and out of the team. Sherwood’s preferred line-up would see Charles N’Zogbia and Jack Grealish occupy the two attacking positions either side of Christian Benteke. Gabby was now becoming a squad player rather than the ever present member of the first team.
He didn’t start the calamitous FA Cup final against Arsenal in 2015, where Villa tamely surrendered 4-0. Whilst sitting on the bench at Wembley alongside Tim Sherwood, Agbonlahor must have rued the chance he previously had to win a trophy with Aston Villa which was the League Cup final in 2010, when Martin O’Neill was manager. Gabby had won Villa a penalty early in the match when he was hauled down clumsily by an outpaced, Nemanja Vidic. James Milner scored the penalty but the referee, Phil Dowd, failed to send Vidic off and Manchester United went on to win 2-1. It was the closest Gabby would ever come to winning silver wear with the club.
In his new role as a squad player, Gabby returned to pre season training at the first team squad’s training camp in Portugal. Manager, Tim Sherwood, bravely suggested, “Gabby is looking really sharp. He is shedding weight and why shouldn’t he have the best season he ever had?” In fact it was the worst.
“IN MY OPINION, HE HAS CONNED THE VILLA FANS FOR SO MANY YEARS.” – ANDY GRAY ON GABBY.
Final False Dawn?
The manner in which Chelsea’s title winning team declined after a disastrous pre season was perhaps an indicator of how Aston Villa’s 2015/16 season would play out. Previous CEO Tom Fox had employed two fitness experts for a princely sum of £500,000 but the players were not made fitter or more match ready by these ‘experts’.
The signs were there in pre season friendlies against lower league opposition. Gabby, in particular, epitomised the drift and decline of the club as he was unable to make the same impact he used to. The ageing striker, by his own volition, took himself to a training camp in the US to improve his fitness as Tim Sherwood was replaced by Remi Garde.
Garde was determined to move Agbonlahor on, aware of what had gone before through his old mentor, Houllier. His mind was further made up when Gabby complained that Garde’s sessions were ‘too intense‘ despite Gabby not being in peak shape as a player. Most photographs of Agbonlahor in the 2015/16 season show him looking over weight and sullen. Memes and jokes flooded Aston Villa fans Twitter accounts, with many teasing the player about his weight.
Following Garde’s failure to move Agbonlahor on in that January transfer window, which also meant Randy Lerner was reluctant to finance additional loans because of Gabby and N’Zogbia’s huge wages, Gabby was asked to play up front for the club against Norwich.
Aston Villa won 2-0 and Agbonlahor scored one of the goals (which he didn’t celebrate). Rather than apologise for his failure to score a goal for twelve months, or be delighted that the club were now just five points from safety, Gabby went straight onto his Instagram, writing somewhat petulantly, “That was for all the haters hope I have ruined your Saturday”
The following match saw the beginning of the end for Garde, with Gabby once again playing a central role in the farce. Villa were humiliated 6-0 at home by Jurgen Klopp’s vibrant Liverpool team. There was no chance of saving the club now. During the painful Valentines Day massacre, Gabby allegedly subbed himself off with a headache.
“He is shedding weight and why shouldn’t he have the best season he ever had?” – Tim Sherwood on Gabby in 2015
With Garde waiting to receive his pay off, club Captain Gabby and team Captain Micah Richards, then took themselves off for a weekend break in Dubai. They were papped indulging in excessive drinking sessions by the newspapers, which drew the ire and frustration of Villa fans. Club legend, Andy Gray famously said, “In my opinion he has conned the Villa fans for so many years. As club Captain you don’t disappear to Dubai, even on a break. That’s him saying, ‘I’m yahooing it, I’m Gabby Agbonlahor.”
The club initiated a half-hearted investigation into the Dubai incident and caretaker manager, Eric Black, declared that Gabby was unfit (physically) to play. Though one club investigation wasn’t enough. Gabby was one again caught by the newspapers partying in hotel room with various hangers on the day when Aston Villa were officially relegated.
This would surely be it for Gabby’s career at Aston Villa. He had been an overweight, bitter presence throughout the season, who had seemed more interested in settling scores than scoring goals.
Those who had looked forward to Agbonlahor finally leaving the club were encouraged by Di Matteo’s assertion in pre season that Gabby was, ‘not part of the group.’ However, a disastrous start to the 2016/17 season saw Di Matteo leave his job after a huge £56m summer spend returned poor results on the pitch.
Now, Gabby has been able to convince the latest Villa boss Steve Bruce, who wants to win over fans who used to call him ‘Potato Head’, that he can play a big role for the first team this season. It seems Bruce has been convinced by the player, opting to give him a clean slate. Certainly this is a move that has been celebrated by a vocal section of fans who have always remained loyal to ‘Mr. Aston Villa’ throughout all of his misdemeanours.
There are also, however, many fans who are disappointed with the decision. To outsiders it must look embarrassing and desperate for the club who spend almost £25million on strikers this summer to go back to a player who had demonstrated such appalling behaviour in the season they were relegated.
It doesn’t encourage players in the academy to be professional and undermines the comments of Tony Xia, who declared that he wanted to rid the club of ‘bad’ players.
Final, Final, Final Chance
Bruce himself claimed that he didn’t care what happened in the past when he arrived at the club and he has taken a popular (according to various polls) decision to bring Gabby back. Bruce even claimed that Agbonlahor could be one of the best strikers in the Championship this week and he deferred reverentially to Gabby’s experience in second city derbies in his press conference.
Whilst previous managers have tried in vain to wrestle control away from Agbonlahor, Bruce has now decided to give him back some of his previous power and influence. Interestingly, the Villa boss even bought him back a month ahead of schedule, after publicly saying that the Villa striker was on a six-week fitness programme, which he’s only completed the first fortnight of.
How this plays out in the next few months remains to be seen. There is potentially a role for Agbonlahor at the club come January, when you consider that Jonathan Kodjia, Jordan Ayew and Albert Adomah will be all lost to the African Nations Cup. It’s a period that may give the striker a final chance to pay the club and fans back after his recent behaviour.
One thing seems certain though, Gabby is back. For better or for worse.
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