Gabby Agbonlahor’s playing career with Aston Villa, his only – apart from a couple of brief, early loan spells, ended with the completion of the 2017-18 season when the club declined to renew his contract, despite apparently the player offering to continue at the club for no salary in an attempt to prove his worth. The season had seen a mere half-dozen appearances from the striker, with his last game for the club being against Sheffield United two days before Christmas.
The decision brought to an end a 17-year career that promised so much and, in the end, delivered so little of what could have been. A player blessed with searing pace and no small amount of ability will forever be regarded as something of a nearly man; the sort of player who for so long was on the cusp of achieving great things. It’s perhaps appropriate that the two major medals he earned were both as a runner-up, once in the FA Cup and once in the League Cup. Such things can be argued to sum up the career of a coming man that never really arrived.
Locally born, and a product of the club’s youth system, Gabby Agbonlahor was every inch the “one of our own” players celebrated by fans of any club. That he was a striker with a particular knack of netting deciding goals in local derby matches against Birmingham City, only endeared him to the Holte End fans at Villa Park even more.
Agbonlahor signed for Aston Villa in 2005 and after a couple of short loan spells, firstly with Watford and then Sheffield Wednesday, he made his debut for the club in 2006. He would appear in just six games for the club in that season, but for the next decade or so, would become a regular feature of the Villa side under a number of different managers. Up until the end of the 2014-15 season, despite a goalscoring tally that could perhaps best be described as erratic, he would appear at least 30 times for the Midlands club in each season, with perhaps his best times coming under Martin O’Neill when the Irishman took the club to three consecutive sixth-place finishes in the Premier League. Somewhat like Agbonlahor’s career, however, just when Villa seemed on the edge of a breakthrough into the top echelon of clubs likely to win trophies, a dispute over money and signings between the manager and owner, Randy Lerner, threw things up in the air, and O’Neill left.
The time under the Irish manager was Agbonlahor’s most prolific, although that still only meant a total of 39 goals across the three seasons of 2007-08 to 2009-10 inclusive. Some explanation for this though may have been due to the manager’s penchant to often play the striker in a wide role, using his pace to create spaces and openings for others. If he had consistently been allowed to be the spearhead of the Villa front line, it’s very likely that his striking ratio would have been much higher. Nevertheless, there were times when Agbonlahor looked almost like a player who could terrorise opposition defences. In 2008, he scored a ‘perfect’ (left foot, right foot and headed goals) hat-trick in an eight minutes spell against Manchester City. It remains as one of the quickest such achievements in the history of the English game.
Internationally, he could have chosen Scotland or Nigeria but decided to opt for the Three Lions. Whilst, as the country of his birth, it was an entirely understandable decision, the paltry three caps he won would surely have been so many more had he opted for one of the other choices. Following the hat-trick against City, Fabio Capello selected Agbonlahor for an England debut in a friendly against Germany in November 2008. It was hardly the easiest of introductions to the international stage. The Germans had only lost out to a Spanish team at the height of their powers a few months earlier in the final of the European Championships. It would be a tough baptism, but one that Agbonlahor would use to display the potential he had, still being in his early twenties.
In a performance full of pace, power and potential, Agbonlahor, partnered by Jermaine Defoe, tore the German defence asunder, creating havoc in the opposition backline and had a goal disallowed. It was an all too brief glimpse of a promise never to be fulfilled though. He would make a mere two further appearances for England. His international career had peaked. Strange to say, but at the tender age of just 23, a not too similar trend occurred in his domestic football.
At the end of the 2008-09 season, he was named as the PFA Young Player of the Year, and there was talk of a big money bid from Arsenal for his services, but it never materialised, and Agbonlahor stayed in Birmingham. The chance wouldn’t come again. As with England, his peak was nearly passed. The following term would be his most prolific, scoring 16 times, but in the subsequent eight years, he would only muster another 36 goals in total. There would be a renaissance of sorts in the 2012-13 season when an imaginative partnership with Christian Benteke brought nine of those 36 strikes, but again it was gone all too quickly.
As Villa declined, so did the fortunes of Agbonlahor. Relegation followed in 2015-16 and Agbonlahor was photographed smoking a shisha pipe on an allegedly alcohol-fuelled holiday in Dubai, and then later with nitrous oxide balloons. For a local boy being seen under such circumstances as the club plunged out of the top division, it was hardly the sort of things that fans would consider appropriate.
A period in the Championship may well have been the sort of opportunity to rekindle a striker’s goalscoring drive, being pitched against supposedly inferior defences, but things didn’t pan out that way for Agbonlahor. He scored just once in 14 games. He was slightly redeemed however as that solitary strike was another that came against Villa’s cross-city rivals. In the final analysis, though it was a pitifully small return, and the following season saw another single goal added to his tally. The end game, with him being released, was surely no surprise to anyone.
Reviewing the career of such a player, there’s inevitably a poignant feeling of what might have been; indeed what surely should have been. Instances such as the eight-minute demolition of Manchester City, or that audacious display against the second-best international team in Europe a few months later are the exceptions though in a career that flatlined on so many occasions, with rare peaks of excellence. They remain just sad reminders of a frustrating career, of a coming player, who never really arrived.