Gabriel Agbonlahor is perhaps one of the most polarising players at Aston Villa in recent history.
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This is an extended and edited version of a post that appeared in the Under A Gaslit Lamp magazine Volume One.
Gabriel Agbonlahor is one of the most polarising players in recent Aston Villa history; a forward with so much promise, that despite unfulfilled potential still manage to write his name into the club’s lore. Instead of being cherished as a club legend, his legacy is almost tainted by the eclipse of his career.
He is one of the reasons a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties support Aston Villa, bar the family connection. Agbonlahor is also a player that could have gone on to have achieved and remembered for so much more than what he is today – a bastard against Birmingham City, wasted talent, and a ‘pace merchant’ on the video game series FIFA.
Over a decade ago, Gabriel Agbonlahor was at the peak of his Aston Villa career with the footballing world at his feet, starting the season with an eight-minute hat-trick against now league behemoth Manchester City. He found himself earning a starting position for the England national team alongside Jermaine Defoe against Die Mannschaft. It was the first of a trio of caps for Agbonlahor – but signified the beginning of the end of his Aston Villa career.
Between 2006 and the turn of the last decade, Agbonlahor scored forty-four goals across four years as a winger under Martin O’Neill, enjoying some of the best football and form of his career. The striker was played as a winger, giving him the opportunity to use his pace to beat his man by cutting inside or to fashion an opportunity for his team-mates.
In 2008, The Independent published an article with a statement of “The prospect of Theo Walcott and Gabriel Agbonlahor being paired together in an England side is sufficient to wet the lips of all admirers of the beautiful game”.
Theo himself was a fan, stating in an interview that Agbonlahor was an “absolute joke” and that he could “get to a pass even if it was overcooked”.
The two could have even lined up at club level post-2008, with the transfer rumours of that summer linking Agbonlahor with a £25,000,000 move from Villa Park to The Emirates. Remember two summers ago, how fearful fans were of losing Jack Grealish? That’s how the summer that Gabriel Agbonlahor was linked with Arsenal felt. He was shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the Year Award, but his big move never really seemed close, and the local boy stayed with his local club.
His three appearances for England could have been more if he had picked to represent another country of his heritage, Scotland or Nigeria. The choice was there, but the pull of the Three Lions was too much. In hindsight – picking either of the other options could have helped to prolong his form at club level.
Post international appearances, Gabriel Agbonlahor enjoyed his most prolific season in 2009/10, scoring sixteen goals. He had peaked, never again to hit those heights other than a brief renaissance alongside Belgian forward Christian Benteke in 2012/13.
Gabriel Agbonlahor’s decline was almost metaphoric. As the player declined, so did the club. The forward’s onfield performances can’t be attributed solely for Aston Villa’s eventual relegation, but perhaps a change in attitude can be pinpointed as one of the reasons. He still popped up with goals and assists, but he wasn’t the same player. As the club fought bravely against relegation year-on-year, fans weren’t too disheartened at the prospect of Agbonlahor in the Championship – if anything, he would be a revelation in that league – or so they thought.
As his decline continued, there are times where Agbonlahor’s attitude spiralled with it. Shay Given recalls a time where Gabriel was speaking to then boss Paul Lambert, and when assistant manager Roy Keane joined the conversation, Agbonlahor retorted with “I wasn’t speaking to you” – causing the situation to escalate. In the season of relegation, Agbonlahor, now club captain, found his armband stripped from him as he was spotted enjoying the frivolities of Dubai on a multi-day bender with other “volatile” members of the squad in that season. At least he made it to The Emirates one way or another.
The predicted second-tier revival never came. He scored once in his first season in the Sky Bet Championship, making fourteen appearances in the first season, before scoring on the opening day of the second season in the second tier. Most of his time in this league was spent trying to get fit in ‘specialised weight camps’ and starting his own clothing line.
Gabriel Agbonlahor will be remembered for what could have been more so than what was – but not in every case. He’ll certainly be remembered for what so many consider him a modern-day club hero because he was a local lad that had a habit of sticking it to rivals Birmingham City – a mantle that current captain Jack Grealish has taken since.
He is the third-highest goal-scorer within the Second City Derby, a feat he shares with Aston Villa’s Tom Waring and John Campbell and City’s Ken Leek and Johnny Crosbie. They all sit on five goals.
Even when his career was in the dying embers; flames feebly trying to recover from being doused, he managed to do what he had always done and scored against Birmingham City in the 2016/17 season.
It was really the last genuine moment that Agbonlahor had to connect with the Aston Villa faithful. He created a cacophony of memories. Some are tinged with disappointment, and some are gilded with greatness.
He could have been remembered for much more than what he is remembered for though, especially to fans outside of B6. He’s remembered fondly by fans of the FIFA video game series as being a player that had blistering pace, back when that really mattered, and for never really truly reaching the heights expected of him.