Gift of the Gab
Johnny Phillips talks to Villa star and fans favourite Gabriel Agbonlahor about a disappointing season.
Last Updated: 08/03/12 2:48pm
It's been a difficult season for Aston Villa supporters. It began with unrest over the appointment of Alex McLeish and the sales of wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.
More recently the club has announced annual losses of £54m, although that doesn't take into account the summer departures. Injuries have burdened the manager too. Star striker Darren Bent has been ruled out for the remaining few months of the campaign after suffering an injury at Wigan in the same game that Robbie Keane ended his loan spell.
For the supporters of the biggest club in the second city, the sooner the 2011/12 season comes to an end the better.
This was something I put to Gabriel Agbonlahor this week when Soccer Saturday visited the club's Bodymoor Heath training ground ahead of Saturday's match with Fulham. Agbonlahor is the club's Acorns ambassador and he has been fronting a campaign to raise £50,000 to run an Acorns hospice for a whole week, with a range of fundraising activities planned at the Fulham match.
When I caught up with him he was watching from the sidelines as his team-mates ended training with a crossbar challenge organised by Soccer AM.
Agbonlahor agreed that there has been little to smile about in recent months:
"We just need to get this season out of the way" he explained. "It's been tough with the sales of some big players over the summer and others coming in.
"It has taken time for everyone to gel and we're still getting to know each other now. We have still got quality players in the team though. You saw that with Charles N'Zogbia's goal at the weekend against Blackburn."
Agbonlahor himself has been something of an enigma this season. He made a fantastic start with some important goals and, when asked to play in his unfavoured position out wide, provided a reliable supply line for Darren Bent.
He was certainly a part of Fabio Capello's plans as eyes turned towards England's Euro 2012 plans. But a hamstring injury forced him out of the autumn friendly against Spain. Further problems including back spasms haven't helped his cause and he now faces a challenge to win a place in the squad ahead of the summer.
With Bent and Keane now unavailable, the 25 year old is back in his preferred role as a central striker but insists he should be judged on his all-round performance:
"My game is about bringing players into play as well. Obviously I want to score goals but there's more to it than just that."
But, whether he likes it or not, there are no other obvious alternatives to turn to for goals. The onus will be on the local lad to start chipping in from now until the end of the season.
A product of the club's much vaunted academy, Agbonlahor is someone the supporters look up to. As a lifelong Villa supporter he has always been a popular player in the stands.
He was outspoken in his criticism of the previous regime under Gerard Houllier, when he revealed he almost quit the club, but he is now firmly committed to the cause once more. Yet he was keen to stress that patience is required going forward:
"I know the supporters have been frustrated but they've got to understand it's been a season of transition. We've got to get to the summer and regroup. Then there'll be some strengthening and we can change a few things" he added.
Patience is in short supply in modern day football. It wasn't long ago that Villa were challenging for the Champions League places under Martin O'Neill. A lot has changed since then.
But scratch below the surface and there are reasons to be optimistic. Despite the high profile departures, in amongst the senior professionals there is a freshness about the Villa squad.
Like his predecessor, McLeish hasn't been afraid to blood the youngsters despite a natural conservatism about his team formations. Ciaran Clark, Gary Gardner, Barry Bannan, Chris Herd and Fabian Delph have all been involved this season, following in the steps of Marc Albrighton and, before him, Agbonlahor himself. In years to come, 2011/12 will not be looked back upon as a vintage season, but it has not been the write off many critics have suggested.
You can see the full interview with Gabriel Agbonlahor on this week's Soccer Saturday from 12pm on Sky Sports News HD.