It’s April 2017, and, as is customary in these situations, Gabby Agbonlahor emerges as the derby day hero for Aston Villa in a turgid 1-0 victory over Birmingham City.

Introduced in the second half, the forward pounced quickest on a goalmouth scramble to ram home his first, and only, goal of the 2016-17 campaign.

In the ensuing celebrations, it was easy to forget the sequence of events that had led a player who was once key to a side pushing for Champions League qualification being marginalised to the fringes of a mid-table Championship squad.

That was Agbonlahor’s 85th strike for the club; there would be only one more to follow, the opening effort of the following season as the team drew at home with Hull.

Now, having departed his boyhood side last summer, the former England international has called time on his playing career.

It’s a limp end for a striker, and leaves questions as to where his legacy sits — a talent ultimately unfulfilled, or a rare one-club icon in the modern era?

Having debuted under David O’Leary, the rapid youngster flourished with Martin O’Neill at the helm, as he set about transforming Villa into an outfit that looked genuinely capable of breaking into the then-impenetrable top four of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Playing with a swift counter-attacking style, the Northern Irishman tended to deploy Agbonlahor on the wing, opposite his good friend Ashley Young, with the battering ram of John Carew as the spearhead in the centre.

Adept on either flank, he could also join the big Norwegian in a front two as and when required.

Although that period failed to yield a trophy, it’s one that with hindsight Villa fans look back upon fondly.

Steadying the ship in his first term, O’Neill then led the Claret and Blues to three successive sixth-placed finishes, with the dream of Champions League football eluding them thanks largely to squad burnout, with relatively small resources to pool from compared to the league’s elite.

And Agbonlahor was at its heart, terrorising defences with his blistering acceleration and chipping in with crucial goals in memorable wins over big hitters such as Chelsea, Arsenal and United, along with a seven-minute, perfect hat-trick against an emerging Manchester City on the opening day of the 2008-09 season.

It was he who won the penalty that sent Villa into a 1-0 lead in the 2010 League Cup final against the Red Devils, although the baffling decision of referee Howard Webb not to dismiss Nemanja Vidic for the challenge ultimately proved costly in a 2-1 defeat.

And as silverware remained out of reach, the fear was that Agbonlahor would outgrow the club.

Rumours linked him with moves to Arsenal and United in his youth, and while fans were thankful it never materialised, you cannot help but wonder whether that would have taken his skills, and discipline, to the next level.

While O’Neill’s tactics suited the Englishman’s game, surely he would have become a more rounded player under an Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson?

Probably, but in truth, we’ll never know; Ferguson would likely have either broken or tamed him within a couple of seasons, and Wenger, unquestionably an excellent manager in his heyday, developed a reputation for allowing players to get comfortable at Arsenal during his later years in North London.

Regardless, Agbonlahor remained a Villan and watched on as the team was slowly dismantled, with Gareth Barry, James Milner, Ashley Young and more going on to bigger and better things.

As the aforementioned trio were picking up league titles, Gabby’s career was unravelling.

O’Neill himself bid farewell to B6 in controversial fashion on the cusp of the 2010-11 season, in a move that is now viewed as a pivotal moment in Villa’s recent history, one of many tipping points which culminated their relegation six years later.

It is also when Agbonlahor’s problems started.

A clash of personalities with O’Neill’s successor, Gerard Houllier, saw him in and out of the side that term, and he never seemed the same force, barring a few highs here and there under Paul Lambert and Tim Sherwood.

Physically fans started to notice a change; the wiry torso that helped him reach those incredible speeds in his early days was replaced by a bulkier frame, and although he was still quick, that raw edge was gone.

Looking at it critically, Agbonlahor was simply not talented enough with the ball at his feet to sacrifice his most potent weapon, the very thing that set him apart.

That time spent lifting weights in the gym would have been better spent on the training pitch, working on a sometimes wayward first touch, or building up his composure in one-on-one situations.

But instead, his ability to impact matches deteriorated, and he quickly went from one of the Premier League’s more effective forwards to a middle-of-the-road striker.

All of this isn’t to say that Agbonlahor didn’t enjoy a successful football career, and the derisory comments from some sections of the media following his announcement this week have perhaps been a little unfair.

In fact, compare him to a prominent contemporary, Theo Walcott, and his stats match up very well.

The two have played a similar number of Premier League matches (322 to the Everton man’s 314), with Agbonlahor currently three goals ahead of his rival’s 71.

The spread of those strikes is also startling; Gabby bagged 25 with his left foot, and 16 with his head, compared to Walcott’s 11 and two respectively, suggesting that the Birmingham-born lad had a far more rounded game.

And that’s considering that the 47-cap England international played with some of the sport’s most potent creative talents along the way, including the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Mesut Ozil.

When Walcott left Arsenal midway through last season, the consensus was that he’d enjoyed a good spell at the Emirates Stadium, despite never quite hitting his potential or nailing down a place in the team.

The reaction to Agbonlahor’s retirement has been to deride his decline, with the suggestion that he didn’t have the professionalism to survive at the highest level.

There’s certainly a case for that, but you can’t help but think that if Gabby had been at a ‘fashionable’ big-four outfit for most of his playing days, he’d be viewed with a little more leniency.

Even amongst Holte Enders though, the 32-year-old isn’t universally popular.

His actions during the club’s disastrous 2015-16 campaign, pictured on holiday in Dubai midway through the term and out partying on the very night that relegation was confirmed, cost him a lot of goodwill.

And since the team has been in the Championship, Agbonlahor has been little more than a peripheral figure, used only in emergency situations.

Which brings us back to the derby at Villa Park in 2017.

It turned out Agbonlahor had one last memory to give the fans, and in that explosion of joy as his shot found the roof of the net, everything was forgiven.

It perhaps wasn’t a trademark goal, but in a different sense was still a reminder of his early years, when he was the man who could be counted on to deliver in the big moments.

Yes, he didn’t fully realise that youthful promise, but when Villa fans look back at the highlights of the past decade or so — namely in those derby wins and notable triumphs over the country’s elite — so many of them belong to Agbonlahor.

Frustrating and occasionally unprofessional, it would be generous in the extreme to put him alongside the likes of Peter Withe, Brian Little and Paul McGrath as a genuine club legend, but equally, he contributed too much to just be consigned to the history books as your average striker.

Instead, cult icon is where Gabby will find himself in his retirement, and he’ll probably be pretty pleased with that.


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