Thursday 27 October 2016

Agbonlahor problem far deeper than one photo


Ian Herbert

Published 21/04/2016 | 02:30

Aston Villa's Gabby Agbonlahor. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Aston Villa's Gabby Agbonlahor. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

Mercifully for the England team, Roy Hodgson doesn't pay too much attention to images on social media. He tends to uphold the libertarian view that what players get up to at 2am is their own business.

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It's why he didn't lose too much sleep over the story of Raheem Sterling inhaling nitrous oxide last year which, at the time of writing, has generated 292 national newspaper stories in the UK.

Though Twitter's window on their world creates that sense of a community of footballers on £50,000-a-week minimum taking the game to hell in a handcart, Hodgson actually wouldn't mind if they let go a little more at times. When the FA threw a little reception to mark England's Euro 2016 qualification last November, only five of the squad invited accepted a glass of the champagne on offer.

On the face of it, a privately published image of Aston Villa's Gabby Agbonlahor is equally insignificant. The player's performance is no more likely to be affected by the singular act of smoking a shisha pipe in Dubai, captured on camera, as Sterling's was by his brush with laughing gas last year.

Living it up and drinking hard? Look up Liverpool and the late 1970s. Jimmy Case and Terry McDermott were locked in the cells after an altercation with one pub landlord in Llangollen, North Wales, in 1979. Their desperation to play football and win games meant that the incident made not the blindest difference, beyond the need for some new furniture in the Bryn Howell Hotel.

What confounds belief about Agbonlahor is that it has taken an image of the player taking 'hippy crack', circulated on a fans' forum, to provoke some action from Aston Villa when the player has been the problem which has haunted the club's managers for years.

As far back as Martin O'Neill's time as manager, in the last decade, Agbonlahor would arrive back from international breaks a day after everyone else - a practice which was allowed to ride. No-one actually got the sense he wanted to be selected for England all that much anyway, given that an international break was the alternative.

Drift is what happens when such a strong character occupies the dressing room of a club in which manger after manager - five of them in the last five and a half years at Villa - is left to feel so pathologically insecure.

Paul Lambert felt deeply uneasy about Agbonlahor's power, influence and deeply questionable work ethic, but his influence on players around him meant he held sway. So, too, did Gerard Houllier.

It was Houllier who told his compatriot Remi Garde to sell him, at a time when the noises coming from the dressing room were that classic form of insurrection. Agbonlahor was finding Garde's training "too intense," we were told.

But having failed to get him out, Garde then found himself so short of players that he suffered the indignity of having to go back to Agbonlahor to say: "We've not found anyone so will you lead the line for me." The player haunted Garde until the very end. He had to use him as a substitute in the last game he took charge for at Swansea. "I've never seen someone take so long to come on," were the Frenchman's parting words.

In a sense, Agbonlahor is a parable for what Villa have become under Randy Lerner: a spineless club so incapable of creating the conditions for strong management that egos like those of Agbonlahor - the so-called 'Mr Villa' - are able to take root.

"It would never have happened at a club I've worked at," says an insider whose worked within the senior first team management units at several Premier League clubs, including a period with Sam Allardyce.

Villa are finally clearing up the mess at the time when they cannot afford to do anything less.

Supporters see the player's white Lamborghini and £2.75m salary, hear of the 500 job losses which Villa's relegation will bring, and conclude what a grotesque place the club they once called theirs has become.

The man to whom the task of ushering Agbonlahor out of the door has fallen, Eric Black, is becoming a specialist in these kind of clean-up operations: a caretaker manager in careworn places. It was Black who mopped up at Blackburn Rovers after the club's Indian owners had kicked out Allardyce. "Dignity." "No side to him," people tell me.

The Professional Footballers' Association will attempt to arbitrate between club and player, too, with the sentiments from the union when we spoke yesterday including some despair that a photograph, initially published on a private forum, has landed the sport with more negative publicity.

But Agbonlahor is the story of what happens to a club when those at its helm stop caring. It's about infinitely more than a photograph. (© Independent News Service)

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