Perhaps this comes from my love of baseball more than anything, but looking back to past trades and signings has always been one of my favorite pieces of sports lore. While there are no prospects that got away in football in the same way that baseball allows for those conversations, transfers pose their own unique reflection point. At the time, transfers are always exciting, but in hindsight not as a great for a club. There are plenty of examples of critical signings busting, the no-name emerging, and all the other possible outcomes from these moves.
What we hope to do with this mini-series is reflect on some of those windows that led Villa to where they are today. For example, what moves from Paul Lambert still impact the club? Where are these players now and what are their stories? All these pieces matter to the story of Aston Villa Football Club. At the same time, it is also quite odd to remember that Aleksandar Tonev played on this team at one time.
With that, sit back, and join the walk down memory lane.
Jores Okore (CB)
Labeled as the next big star for the Danish national team when he signed with Aston Villa, Okore never really made the impact than many expected. Most of this was down to a horrible ACL tear that knocked him out for 14 months, and caused him to miss most of the 2013-14 season, his first with the club. At the time what made this move so unique was that the previous January Okore has been linked with the top clubs in England, from Arsenal to Chelsea, but stuck with Nordsjælland. At the time of his move, the four million price tag was the largest sale in Nordsjælland’s club history, and Okore came with the reputation to match.
Injuries limited his playing time, and after a few seasons his time with Villa was done. After a dust-up with interim manager Eric Black, where Okore refused to enter a game versus Bournemouth, he was quickly moved back to Denmark, signing with FC Copenhagen. Injuries also marked this move, and he only made five appearances for the Danish giants. Today he is playing for Aalborg BK, also in Denmark. To date, he has made 33 appearances since the start of 2017, so, at the very least, he is getting on the field after struggling with injuries.
While never the superstar fans imagined, Okore reflects an exciting period for Aston Villa. Still early in Lambert’s tenure, the team was beginning the decline that would take them down the table slowly, but was still able to attract exciting young talent. Okore is clearly a question of “what if.”
Aleksandar Tonev (IF)
At the time this was perhaps an even more exciting prospect than Okore to Villa fans, as this deal got the personal approval of Stiliyan Petrov. A fellow Bulgarian, Tonev was an inside forward, played for the Bulgarian national team, and had shown the ability to be an impact player for Lech Poznan in Poland. Sadly, he never played up to expectations under Paul Lambert, and ultimately found his way on the move to Celtic on loan after one season in Birmingham. At Celtic, he did not find it much easier, and in fact, was accused of racially abusing Aberdeen’s Shay Logan. At the end of the season, Celtic did not take their option to buy.
After returning to Villa, Tonev was sold to the Italian club Frosinone playing a total of 22 games for the club over one season. From there he moved after one season to Crotone as they tried to strengthen in their inaugural season in Serie A. Crotone did stay up in 2016, but were relegated the following year. And yet, Tonev moved with them to the Serie B and has now made this his most extended stay as a club since moving to Villa. Not the talent he was billed as, Tonev was an exciting signing at the time for the club, as serves as a reminder that just because a former player recommends a player does not mean they will turn out the same.
Nicklas Helenius (ST)
Another young signing made by Paul Lambert, Helenius was a striker to dream on for the club. Tall and fast, he looked to be the perfect target man in training to support the likes of Andreas Weinmann and Gabby Agbonlahor up top. While not signed to start, as Christian Benteke was still running the front line for the Villains, he was expected to fight with Libor Kozak for time off the bench. Sadly, this move worked out much like Tonev, with Helenius only making three appearances for the club before moving on loan to Aalborg BK. This loan move ended up as a permanent deal, with the striker scoring eight goals in 32 games for the club on loan. With this move, Helenius moved back to the club he left to sign with Villa, hoping for a restart.
And yet, after his move to the Danish side permanently, he stopped scoring again. In 13 games he managed not to score once and moved on loan twice in 2016 and 2017. The first move was to German side SC Paderborn with four goals in 14 games. Second, he moved to Danish side Silkeborg IF, scoring ten in 29 games. From there he moved to his current home at Odense Boldklub (OB) scoring two in 16. While never the star that the club thought they were adding, Helenius has turned in a solid career in his home country, and perhaps might be a name to keep in mind on the Continent moving forward.
Libor Kozak (ST)
Kozak is the ultimate “what if” for Villa fans, as when he did play he looked to offer something real on the pitch. The problem was staying on the field, with two massive injuries in as many seasons; the tall striker never was able to get a good run of games for the team. While the Villains signed him from Lazio, this was his second stint in England, as before joining the Italian club, Kozak had a trial with Portsmouth. After not signing with Pompey, Kozak moved to Rome where he posted an impressive stat line the season before he returned to England. In 2012/13 he failed to score once in Serie A but was the leading scorer in the Europa League with eight goals. From there he joined up with Villa and scored his first goal in a 1-0 win over Norwich. This looked to be the start of a promising campaign, as while Christian Benteke was the definite number one up top, Kozak offered something different off the bench.
And then disaster struck, with a training ground collision with Ciaran Clark in January knocking him out for the rest of the campaign. He returned to the pitch 15 months later, but ultimately complications kept him from ever getting back up to form. An ankle injury a bit later took him out for the most of the following campaign, and then he was ultimately released by the club after 2016/17. To be honest, the injury timeline is a bit muddled, as it is hard to tell in some places where he was dealing with the leg, setbacks from the surgery, or other knocks picked up with the team. Whatever the case, Kozak could not stay healthy and this limited what he could do for the club. From Villa Kozak moved to Bari in Serie B, and played in 15 games for the club with two goals. After that, he moved to Livorno where he currently resides. Kozak was always a player the fans liked, and here is to hoping he gets back to the Europa League at some point.
Antonio Luna (LB)
“Tony Moon” burst onto the scene with Aston Villa with a goal in the opening day 3-1 win over Arsenal in 2013. The signing from Sevilla ended up making a total of 17 appearances but had no other goals to his name. While he was signed and named as a left-back in the papers, Luna seemed to offer a bit of forward play as well. During his time at Sevilla, his first goal was scored from a left midfielder position, or at least, that is what the papers say. To be honest, there is not much to say about Luna during his time at Aston Villa as Joe Bennett and Ryan Bertrand ended up getting some time of the left as well. Luna moved from the clear starter to second choice rather quickly. While not expected to be an impact signing per say, that goal versus Arsenal will be a highlight for most fans from the 2013/14 campaign.
After one year with the club, Luna bounced around on loans until ultimately moving back to the Spanish League. His first moves though were to Italy, with a loan spell to Hellas Verona at first, where he ended up not making a single appearance. From there he dropped a level, and moved Spezia Calcio in Serie B. In total, he only made four appearances away from Aston Villa during those two loan spells. The kicker is that in his second appearance with Calcio, he was sent off, so really he only played in three and a half games. After thee unsuccessful moves he made the transition back to Spain with a move to Eibar, where he had 41 appearances over two strong years with the club. He added six assists from the back and even chipped in a goal. From there he moved to his current club in Levante and has been a regular in that side as well. Perhaps not the flop of the list with the other names, Luna might have had the best post-Villa career of any of the signings this term.