The number 9 shirt at Aston Villa has always been revered by the fans and coveted by the strikers who have passed through the club. In the modern era where players have squad numbers which have specific meanings to them, the traditional 1 to 11 numbers which used to relate to position on the field, seems to apply less and less.
When we think of ‘number 9’ we think of a central striker, usually six foot plus, a target man, not necessarily a prolific goal scorer, but certainly able to weigh in with his fair share over the season. Historically names like Andy Gray and Peter Withe roll off the tongue as legends who donned the famous number 9 shirt for Aston Villa, but in my time centre-forwards of that calibre have been few and far between. So much so in fact that is was only last season that on loan forward Tammy Abraham finally broke the 20 and 25 league goals mark set by Withe and Gray respectively.
In my time supporting Villa there have been several pretenders to the collective throne of Gray and Withe, including Alan McInally, Dwight Yorke, Dion Dublin, John Carew and Christian Benteke, each on the brink of breaking 20 goals but falling short of the kingmaker milestone. Indeed current squad member Jonathan Kodjia notched up 19 goals in the 2016/17 season, before suspension and injury curtailed his efforts.
I’m fairly sure that fans of all clubs like a good centre forward, but at Villa there is something a little more attached to the position amongst the supporters. It is almost as if ever since the ball bounced of Peter Withe’s shin and into the net in Rotterdam to secure the European Cup, the Holte End has been desperately seeking the man to fill that void and become a hero befitting of his shirt once again.
As I said, many big names have come in and had a go, some with significant success, who will always be remembered fondly for different reasons. Others have felt the weight of the Villa number 9 shirt and succumbed to it, Stan Collymore, Darren Bent and Scott Hogan to name a few.
Now we have welcomed a new candidate in Brazilian Wesley, who despite being relative unknown in these parts, commanded a club record fee of £22 million during the summer. It is safe to say that the jury is very much out and will probably remain so for a while yet. It is also my confident prediction that he will not match Abraham’s goals coring exploits of last season and break the 20 goal tally.
However given his age of 22 years and the fact that he is stepping up from a somewhat weaker league in Belgium, I would regard his performances and current goal tally of 2 in 7 games to be on par at this early stage. This has not prevented the voices of discontent from the stands, as fans and player become accustomed to each other.
It would seem that of all twelve summer signings, Wesley is being held to far high expectations than the others. I sure this is partly to do with his transfer fee, along with the fact that he is a direct replacement for Tammy Abraham, who elevated himself to club hero status, despite actually belonging to Chelsea. However, it is also due to the esteem with which we hold our number 9’s and the fact that Wesley has that squad number, makes the comparisons with his predecessors even more stark.
I previously wrote a piece suggesting that there may be similarities between Wesley and Savo Milosevic, who joined Villa in 1995. Both young strikers, from lesser leagues, signed for relatively record fees, who would each require time to settle and adapt to their new environment, whilst simultaneously meeting their potential on the field. I have yet to see any evidence that has swayed me from this comparison and it would be lovely to think that those of us who remember Savo and how difficult it was for him, have learned from hat and will offer Wesley more understanding as a result.
Furthermore, as with Milosevic - his transfer fee of £3.5 million was a record for Aston Villa at the time, Wesley has the same millstone with his fee. This undoubtedly brings a degree of pressure and expectancy on him, but it is worth remembering that in the grand scheme of things that £22 million is a relatively modest fee for a Premier League striker, especially a Brazilian with Champions League experience.
In the three seasons that Villa have been away, plus the seasons leading up to relegation when Randy Lerner could not and did not attempt to compete financially, the landscape has inflated to a point where a club record fee only buys us potential. Even the £45 million that West Ham have shelled out for Haller is a punt on raw materials as all clubs are relentlessly seeking value in finding the next superstar striker.
For now what we have is a young hungry striker, with every motivation to put everything he has into making this opportunity work. He is big and powerful with a turn of pace and a light touch for a man of his size. He also has a fierce streak, not unlike Diego Costa, which if well placed can work in his favour to upset opposition centre halves. The making of Wesley with be the coaching that brings his attributes together within the team philosophy, which Dean Smith does have a track record of, not least with Neal Maupay at Brentford.
Most of all Wesley needs the fans to remove the shackles of our number 9 history, so he has the room to develop in his role. Whilst the target of attainment is set out by his predecessors and the rewards for achievement are evident in Villa folklore, Wesley will draw on the confidence which comes from the energy of being a another in a long line of adored Villa strikers and the inhabitant of the famous number 9 shirt.