Gabriel Agbonlahor has come to resemble something of a relic at Villa Park in recent times, a vague reminder of better times when he and Aston Villa sprinted exhilaratingly towards the top echelons of the Premier League. On Sunday, recharged by the incentive of attempting to help relegate Birmingham City, the club’s highest Premier League scorer returned from three months out to claim his first goal in more than a year to win a frenetic derby.
Harry Redknapp, charged with a three-game mission of keeping Birmingham in the Championship, was encouraged but caustic after watching his newly inherited players give a creditable display that looked set fair to gain a valuable point before the former England striker rose from the bench to do what he does best. “Gabby?” he said. “He’s done well today. He’s had 10 minutes. That’ll keep him happy for another year, won’t it? Fantastic.”
With two games left to play, Birmingham are two points clear of the relegation zone and Blackburn Rovers, who host Villa on Saturday. What price Agbonlahor being slightly less motivated for that one? The former England striker had not scored since February last year, has not played since January because of a hamstring injury and had become a forgotten man after some hazy off-pitch shenanigans. Until Sunday.
With Birmingham acquitting themselves well, looking compact and organised even after only three days working with Redknapp and Steve Cotterill on the training ground, in stark contrast to the chaos of Gianfranco Zola’s reign, Agbonlahor stripped off, ready to add a little character and zest to a Villa attack that looked impotent in the absence of the suspended Jonathan Kodjia, scorer of 41% of their league goals this season. The striker timed his intervention to perfection, coming on just before the hour mark to charge around a like a horse finally allowed out of its stable.
He pumped his fists at the Birmingham fans, squared up to Ryan Shotton to get them both booked and then, with the ball pinging off a succession of heads after Henri Lansbury’s corner, Agbonlahor was on hand to pivot and slash the ball home from within the six-yard box in front of the Holte End. Cue mayhem, of the claret and blue variety. It was his fifth goal in a Villa-Blues derby.
“Tactical genius, wasn’t it?” Steve Bruce jested of his substitution. “We needed him because it lifted the crowd. In his first two minutes he went roaring into a challenge. You can talk about tactics and this, that and the other but supporters want to see exactly what he did, in a derby match, where it means something. He’s had his critics and his criticisms, but since I’ve been here in five months, he’s been terrific. It’s a shame he injured his hamstring against Preston because he was looking in really good nick again.
“He’s got a big summer ahead of him now – he can’t just prepare all winter for Birmingham. It was a scrappy goal to say the least but what a great finish – he turned, got it out of his feet and put it into the top bin. Good on him.”
Agbonlahor has spent the last two years on the periphery, hitting the headlines more for smoking a shisha pipe and putting on weight than scoring goals and outsprinting defenders, which he did to such terrific effect in the Martin O’Neill era. The striker has a year in which to earn a new contract. “Certainly a fit Gabby Agbonlahor, at least at this level, has got something to offer, I’m convinced of that,” Bruce, Villa’s former Birmingham manager, said. “And when you get to 30, winning a contract is like winning the lottery.”
Ugo Ehiogu, the former Villa defender, would have relished such a madcap derby. He was given rounds of applause before kick-off and in the 44th minute, the age at which he died on Friday.
At that stage Birmingham, looking nothing like a team who had won just twice in 24 games to necessitate Redknapp’s arrival, were ahead on points. Lukas Jutkiewicz shrugged off his man down the left-hand side and pulled back the perfect cross for Che Adams to clip his volley over the crossbar.
After Agbonlahor’s goal, Birmingham had to chase the game and when substitute Greg Stewart sent in a superb cross towards the late-arriving David Davis, Alan Hutton made a brilliant saving header. In stoppage time, Paul Robinson, Birmingham’s veteran captain, came charging in to knee Agbonlahor in the back. But if that left the sometime Villa hero grounded momentarily, it is Birmingham who are most in need of lift-off now.
“We didn’t deserve to lose the game,” Redknapp, at 70 the oldest manager in all four divisions said. “They’ve not had a shot second half. Our keeper’s not got his gloves dirty. It was a scrambled goal and that was it. I’m very encouraged. We’ve worked hard this week on the training ground and they carried it out to a T. We’re at home next week [against Huddersfield Town] and if we work as hard as that, we’ve got every chance.”