Watching football fans watching the football
This time last season Gabriel Agbonlahor cut a disconsolate figure at Villa Park. Unwanted and seemingly unrated by the coaching staff, he was close to crossing that indefinable line at which players start being referred to as ‘the former England man’.
Fans and pundits alike were beginning to wonder whether the pacy striker might just be a one-trick pony; many wondered whether he was spending too much time in the gym and not enough on the training field. At 24 he looked like he might be joining a list of Villa strikers including Darius Vassell and Luke Moore in falling away when his best years should still have been ahead of him.
Twelve months is a long time in football and Agbonlahor’s call-up to the England squad for the money spinners/friendlies with Spain and Sweden is the ultimate reward for his blistering start to the season. Five goals and numerous assists make it easy to see why Fabio Capello is keen to take another look at a player who has been wandering in the international wilderness since his third cap in the game against Belarus in October 2009.
It’s pretty simple to see what has brought the transformation about. Villa’s disastrous spell under Gerard Houllier can almost be summed up by looking at the Birmingham-born forward's pitiful stats from last season: five goals from 32 appearances does not make an England striker of anyone (except perhaps Emile Heskey).
The Frenchman publicly questioned Agbonlahor’s work-rate and cast him into an unfamiliar wide role in a team completely lacking direction. In response Agbonlahor stalked the pitch looking off the pace, out of shape and disinterested. Had Houllier’s health not failed him (and assuming owner Randy Lerner would have kept faith with the former Liverpool boss) then there is every chance the youth academy graduate would have been moved on in the summer.
Incoming manager Alex McLeish has given the striker a fresh start – and a new lease of life. His goal in the first home game of the season against Blackburn showed the Holte End faithful that their favourite son was back and he meant business. Ghosting in off the left wing, he unleashed an unstoppable curling effort beyond a stranded Paul Robinson for a goal he has since called his best yet.
More goals have followed – as, perhaps more impressively, have several assists. His pace and directness has best been felt by strike partner and international colleague Darren Bent: Agbonlahor has assisted four of Bent’s five league goals this season, if you include winning the penalty against West Brom.
McLeish’s appointment is one of the most unpopular in the club’s history but Agbonlahor must feel like he has won the lottery. Where Houllier lambasted, McLeish has had nothing but praise. While he is still often not operating as an out-and-out striker, he is being given far more responsibility – due in part to the departures of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young and the poor form of new signing Charles N’Zogbia – and thus seeing more of the ball than he has ever done, even under Martin O’Neill.
Where then does he fit in for England? Capello, castigated last year for being so rigid in his 4-4-2 formation, has shown a new-found willingness to accommodate new systems – and yet it is in a 4-4-2 where Agbonlahor could flourish for the Three Lions.
"Going anywhere nice this summer?" "Hope not"
With Wayne Rooney out of the first three matches of Euro 2012, Jermain Defoe struggling for game time and Andy Carroll misfiring, the Italian could do worse than look at a Bent-Agbonlahor partnership against the World Cup holders on Saturday. The understanding the two have built up could certainly boost a side with a propensity to play like 11 strangers.
If Agbonlahor can keep up his current form then he is, if not worth a place in the starting XI, then at least a spot on the plane to Poland and Ukraine. His new-found mental toughness and composure set him apart from the potentially brilliant but inexperienced Daniel Sturridge and the equally quick but all too erratic Theo Walcott. Never heralded as the brightest of players, Agbonlahor must surely now realise that his success rests squarely on his own shoulders.
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