x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Premier League: Gabriel Agbonlahor is a hero to the Villans

The 26 year old has made a believer of his manager, Paul Lambert, and the rest of Aston Villa's fans, writes Ian Hawkey.

Gabriel Agbonlahor, left, had more pace and skill than Norwich City could handle last week.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, left, had more pace and skill than Norwich City could handle last week.

Apart from its value as the deadlock-breaker in a tight battle between relegation-conscious teams, Gabriel Agbonlahor's first goal last weekend had also been a terrific piece of solo work.

With the match scoreless and the second half under way, somebody needed to take control of the contest.

Agbonlahor took up possession within his own half.

He shrugged off one challenge and, from then on, his purposefulness and speed had his Norwich City opponents back-pedalling, reluctant to risk a tackle.

"Fine", the Aston Villa striker seemed to think to himself, "let's give it a go".

From outside the penalty area, he calculated his angle, knew the power of his right foot.

Bang. The away supporters then gratefully put his many-syllabled surname into song.

That was Agbonlahor's 62nd league goal for Villa.

Five days earlier, in the 6-1 win over Newcastle United, he had reached a Premier League landmark for the club, as contributor of most goals in a Villa shirt by anybody over the past 21 years, overtaking Dwight Yorke's total from the 1990s.

As for the 63rd goal of his league career with Villa, that may come to be remembered as the one which kept his team in the division.

Norwich had equalised, the match had entered its 89th minute, when, put through by a wonderfully measured pass from Ashley Westwood, Agbonlahor provided another exhibition of his turbo-charge and strength.

And also of his precision. The three points moved Villa up four places in the table and five points clear of the relegation zone with two fixtures left.

Agbonlahor, 26, has a keener sense than most about what that, touching distance of safety, would mean to the people who chant his name - "Gab-by-Ag-bon-la-hor" - because he has grown up among them.

Home as a child was within three miles of Villa Park, his accent is pure Brummie and his direct association with the club goes back to his school days, when he began at the Villa youth academy.

He brought to an institution with a strong record for its scouting and nurturing a determination, a willingness to work hard which he ascribes to the influence of his father, Samson.

Villa were also taken with Agbonlahor's obvious athletic assets, notably the kind of acceleration that could genuinely frighten Premier League opponents.

"With his pace and his power, he's got two important things you need in modern football," says Paul Lambert, a manager grateful for the contribution Agbonlahor has made to what looks like Villa's safety in the Premier League, and eager to find mature leaders for what is a very young first team.

The sprinter in Agbonlahor was always visible.

He has also worked on his upper body strength and added some poise to his work in and around the penalty area.

He was still a teenager when he made his Premier League debut for Villa, following experience-gathering loan spells at Watford and Sheffield United. He made a promising start, with a goal on his debut at Everton.

His manager then, David O'Leary, had a reputation, from his time in charge of Leeds United, for encouraging young players. Agbonlahor looked like he had much in his favour.

But he was also a little raw, his finishing erratic, his football played too often with his head down, his awareness of those around him incomplete.

But he largely enjoyed the trust of Martin O'Neill, O'Leary's successor as Villa manager, who used him as a winger and as a central striker.

By the beginning of the 2006/07 season, he was already being courted by more than one national associations.

He qualifies for Nigeria through his father, for England because he was born and has lived all his life there, and for Scotland, his mother's nationality.

Despite the enthusiasm of the Nigerian FA, Agbonlahor chose England, and was first called up to the senior team, at age 21, by Fabio Capello.

He made his competitive debut in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, though he would not be picked for the final tournament.

Indeed, Agbonlahor has not been selected for England since, in part a reflection of his ups and downs with Villa.

Under Gerard Houllier, who followed O'Neill, he became unhappy and felt marginalised.

Under Alex McLeish, he was named captain of Villa, though he would be leading a struggling side.

The goals had dried up, too. When he scored his ninth of the season against Norwich, last weekend, it took him beyond the tally - eight - he had achieved in the previous two campaigns combined.

In November, he had brought to an end a run of 29 matches without a Premier League goal.

But in the past month or so, Lambert has begun to compliment the potency of his young striking trio, Agbolanhor, the impressive and muscular Christian Benteke and the Austrian Andreas Weimann.

He will be anxious to retain all of them over the summer and knows Benteke, in particular, will be sought by other clubs in the transfer market.

Agbonlahor, with his buoyant form - he has six goals from seven games now - and admired quickness, might also be subject to some of the sort of interest from elsewhere that he drew as a younger man, which was when other clubs first began to appreciate that his affection for Villa is genuine and heartfelt, even if, at times, it has been tested.

 

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