It is a little tough to imagine a player in this day and age of the modern game playing for the same football club for over a decade. It is, however, more difficult to discuss a one-club player’s career, especially when it is that of Gabriel ‘Gabby’ Agbonlahor.
He is undoubtedly one of the better products to emerge from our academy in recent years, with 85 goals in all competitions since his debut in the 2005–06 season, and more appearances under his belt (371) for his boyhood club than Stiliyan Petrov, Martin Laursen, and Olaf Mellberg. A few years ago, you would have likely pegged him to be honoured with a testimonial match for his long service, in a similar manner to that of his compatriot, Gareth Barry. Oh, how things can change.
His 2015–16 season is undoubtedly one he would rather forget. He scored 1 goal in 15 league appearances, somehow managing to be the subject of more club investigations (two) than goals. He was suspended, lambasted by fans, fat-shamed and put on a fitness regime for not being fit enough, and stepped down from the role of club captain, a role given to him by Tim Sherwood over summer.
The reversal of Gabby’s fortunes closely mirrors Villa’s – a promising start, followed by stagnation, demise, and collapse. His earlier years under Martin O’Neill, alongside Barry, Laursen, and Young, are some of the best memories fans have of him. Agbonlahor was widely considered among the fastest players in the Premier League, and the Holte End would appropriately chant his name to the tune of ‘Karma Chameleon.’ American former 200m and 400m Olympic champion Michael Johnson even invited him to train with him to improve his sprinting technique. In the three full seasons following his debut in March 2006, Gabby scored 40 goals in 132 appearances (in all competitions), including a memorable finish against Arsenal in 2008, and the only goal in our only away win against Manchester United since 2009.
It is also during this period that Gabby made his debut for the England, earning three caps, though unlike fellow Villans (notably Gareth Barry, Ashley Young, and James Milner), he never really fulfilled his international potential at what could be considered the peak of his career.
He is perhaps better remembered though for his role against Second City rivals, Birmingham City, most notably perhaps the 2-1 triumph at St Andrews in 2007, or the 5-1 victory in 2008. He scored much-loved goals in both fixtures. For his goals against Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion, Gabby is “seen as a derby hero,” as described in his club profile. He has also been considered quite the local hero, for his ambassadorial role with Acorns Children’s Hospice.
If there was any criticism of how Agbonlahor played, it was that he never really evolved his game to fulfill the clear potential that he had. His pace was truly frightening, and would almost always reach the ball first. He then bulked up from 2009 onwards to increase his strength against defenders at the cost of a chunk of his pace, while never really tackling the challenge of improving his footballing ability. Most notably, his finishing and dribbling abilities were amongst those that were areas for growth.
With Agbonlahor’s goal count declining in recent seasons along with his pace, the question of what his utility to the club is has repeatedly popped up. Until last season, you would almost want to keep him out of pure reciprocation for his devotion to Aston Villa. Last season almost completely broke that trust and positive sentiment. For all it’s worth, he does appear to be making amends. After a few odd cryptic messages on Instagram, he appears to be showing his commitment to improving his fitness and being ready for selection by Roberto Di Matteo. Xia’s recent posts on Twitter suggest however that a discussion has taken place on his future at the club, and with the proposal of a season out on loan, it doesn’t appear he is in the gaffer’s plans for this season. however suggest a discussion has taken place on his future at the club, and with the proposal of a season out on loan, it doesn’t appear he is in the gaffer’s plans for this season.
We'll find a club loan him playing for one season 2 see whether he really can be fully fit&then back playing for us. https://t.co/vR93MFCVUb— Dr. Tony Xia (@Dr_TonyXia) August 12, 2016
If a club is willing to take him (his wages would be a notable stumbling block), he must show that not only can he score goals and contribute, but that his game can evolve too. If he can, then perhaps there may be a future yet for his at Villa Park, and a chance to create more memories for his boyhood club.