Not so long ago, Gabriel Agbonlahor must have looked at himself in the mirror whilst getting ready for another enjoyable training session with Aston Villa and thought, “this is the life”. He was firmly established as Villa’s number one attacker, made his England bow in the impressive 2-1 win over Germany in Berlin, and was hailed by some as a future regular under Fabio Capello. Plus, his Villa side had been steadily improving under Martin O’Neill’s low-profile stewardship.
Fast forward four months, and how things have changed. Agbonlahor’s last league goal for Villa came on February 7th at Blackburn, and Villa fans are well aware of this. On Sunday, the local-lad-come-good was substituted with twelve minutes of the home defeat to Spurs remaining, and received a sarcastic round of cheers from the home fans. His replacement Nathan Delfouneso, an even younger product of the Villa academy, was not the target.
The cheers were for the withdrawal of Agbonlahor, who had endured a frustrating afternoon. Congratulations to those who booed, you are all idiots.
OK, so Agbonlahor’s form has dipped noticeably since November and December time; his raw pace can only take him so far each week, and when he is out of a game, he is really out of it. But that is no excuse to jeer a lad who, despite his faults, regularly runs himself into the ground for the cause.
His touch, whilst improving, is still wayward too often. His finishing is inconsistent also. But factor in that he has scored as many Premier League goals as any Englishman in the league this season, allied to the fact that he has had a new striker partner, Emile Heskey, thrust upon him of late, and you have to feel some sympathy for Agbonlahor.
O’Neill himself was critical of the boo-boys (boo-boys who cheered, strangely), and rightly so. “The reaction was more than disappointing,” said the Villa manager. “Gabriel Agbonlahor has been absolutely fantastic for this football club ever since I have known him. He’s going through a period where confidence is low. But, I’ve got to tell you, that is no way to treat a player. I can put up with many things, but that, certainly, was uncalled for. It doesn’t help anybody. People have short memories.”
I am no great O’Neill fan, but that is about as close as you can get to summing up the incident perfectly.
Villa fans have had plenty to (genuinely) cheer this season, O’Neill has built a side of young players who are winning far more games than they are losing. A stark contrast to the dark days of Graham Taylor & David O’Leary’s later years (imagine what the fans would have made of Marcus Allback or Bosko Balaban yesterday!).
But success brings about expectation, and that is proving quite a burden for O’Neill and his players currently. No longer will the Holte End settle for a top half finish and a cup run. Their flirtation with fourth place has come to an end for the time being, but for the fans it was just a taste of what is to come.
Forget the fact that O’Neill had performed miracles with a tiny squad, and that most of that squad have already played 35+ games this season. Make no mistake; fourth place is now THE target for Villa fans this season. Especially now their UEFA Cup adventure is over.
Maybe if Villa were in Everton’s shoes, climbing the league steadily following an indifferent start, then the likes of Agbonlahor would have been spared the humiliating chorus yesterday. But a team in a slump needs scapegoats, and unfortunately the Villa fans have singled out someone who, for my money, deserves better. They say football fans are a fickle bunch, well Villa may just have taken that to another level.