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Author Topic: The Villa Park Misfits - Charles N’Zogbia  (Read 938 times)

Offline dave.woodhall

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The Villa Park Misfits - Charles N’Zogbia
« on: October 02, 2020, 04:50:53 PM »

There’s an old saying, Once bitten, twice shy. Clearly Alex McLeish had never heard of such nonsense before taking hold of the reins at Villa Park in 2011. In his previous managerial post, the man soon to be referred to as The Scottish Manager was keen on signing a speedy, skilful winger to give his workmanlike (let’s be diplomatic here) side a creative edge. In May 2010, a fee was duly negotiated with Wigan and the player was allowed to talk to representatives from the Sty. Apparently, things were going so well that it looked like the deal might well go ahead, when the player/agent, at the eleventh hour, asked for more money than had been originally agreed. Blues, and fair play to ‘em, refused to comply and so the move broke down and the player stayed in the north-west.

Fast-forward one year, and the same scene was played out a second time. This time, as Villa were a wealthier club, the wage demands - which were considerable - weren’t a problem, and so Charles N’Zogbia became a Villa player.

To say that this aroused mixed feelings amongst some of the Villa faithful is putting it mildly. On the one hand, the slot he was destined to fill was on the left midfield where his predecessor was one Stewart Downing, who had left B6 under a cloud, for a remarkably large transfer fee (hats off to Paul Faulkner) after pulling out of contract talks with Gerard Houllier as a result of being allegedly tapped up by Kenny Dalglish. Dalglish saw Downing as the winger with the crossing power to feed his new £35 million striker Andy Carroll (no, really) and keep the goals flooding in. Clearly, Kenny didn’t have a clue what he was doing, as this wasn’t Downing’s game at all. Still, it was quite funny watching Liverpool splash out over fifty million quid on an almost totally non-productive pairing. Of more concern was how we were going to spend the money generated from the sale of Downing and the recently-departed Ashley Young.

The first concern was over the size of N’Zogbia’s transfer fee. With only one year left on his contract, Villa might have expected to close a cut-price deal, something along the lines of five million quid. Alas, Villa fell foul of the Wigan bullshitter-in-chief-himself, Dave Whelan and we ended up paying double that amount. The general understanding was that the player was to be paid fifty thousand a week for the duration of his five-year contract. So not much of a bargain there, either. Still, the decision as to whether this was a top-class signing or whether we had been stuffed again would have to wait until the first sightings of the new man had been evaluated.

In fairness, the signs from the previous season weren’t too bad. After all, Charles had established something of a reputation as a fair’ player. Some memorable goals for Wigan included a spectacular free-kick winner against Arsenal. His goal ratio was about one in five/six, not too bad at all for a wide player who occasionally masqueraded as a full-back. When Bobby Robson made Charles his last signing for the Car-toons, he described him as one of the most naturally-skilful young players he’d ever seen, a serious recommendation bearing in mind some of the names associated with the venerable Bobby.

All in all, we consoled ourselves with the notion that we may have overpaid a bit but if the quality was up to expectations, it could be well worth it. Charles had even joined that category of players who do something memorable against Villa and subsequently join the club. His very neatly slotted goal at B6 in the Spring of 2011 certainly represented a decent marker, a nudge, suggesting, “Come and get me.”

When the action started on the field, the early view was that the Zog left foot contained a lot of skill and control and there was a fair bit of pace to go with it, too. It helped that the first seven games of the new season, being winnable, saw Villa go unbeaten into the autumn. Even so, only two of those games were actually won, despite the favourable run of matches. Alas, the notion of what was ‘winnable’ narrowed down as the season progressed, as the Villa boss seemed to withdraw into a fear of defeat with on-pitch tactics to match. McLeish was fond of countering criticism of his negative tactics by pointing out that, “I had four forwards out there today.” On paper, that may have been the case; on the grass, the question was about how much nearer the four forwards often seemed to our goal than theirs.

After a stirring 3-2 win against a Paul Lambert-inspired Norwich, Villa crept into the top half for the first time and Faulkner dared to air the idea that Villa might soon be joining the battle for European places. McLeish was quick to pour cold water on such an ambition, perhaps on the grounds that such a target would require his side to be more active in seeking wins. One turning point was in the defeat at Spurs where Villa’s lack of ambition was manifest. From this point on, the only target appeared to be to finish bottom half, hard to accept for fans of a club that had ended each of the last four seasons in the top part of the table.

Still, Charles at least made a fist of it. He kept his place in a side on the slide, with thirty league showings that season, though his first goal wasn’t until the new year when Villa fought back from two down to grab a much-deserved point at home to QPR, thanks to Charles’s late equaliser. His other goal was a well-taken effort at Blackburn to give us a lead, but this time the late goal went to the other lot. As injuries and illnesses piled up as the end of the season approached, Villa just about got over the line with a lot of help from the youngsters who chipped in at important times. Nevertheless, a record of a paltry seven wins over the season, with a quality of football to match, meant that few indeed didn’t support the idea of appointing a new boss for 2012-13.

With the popular appointment of Paul Lambert, a manager with a record of playing progressive football, it might have been hoped that Charles would prosper under the new boss. Lambert, of course, had not signed him so felt no compunction to play the winger. He had to battle for his place in the side and he and Barry Bannan had a bit of a contest between Barry’s passing range and Charles’s pace and tricks.

The Zog’s most obvious contribution to a memorable (okay, not all for the right reasons) League Cup run was a goal at Manchester City where Villa came out 3-2 winners. As far as league goals were concerned, the cupboard was bare until the new year, when a Villa side still traumatised by the 15-0 Xmas, slumped into the relegation places. Being knocked out of both cups by lower-division sides did nothing to boost confidence in what was largely a young group of players. Still, there’s always hope, and the return to fitness of Fabien Delph and the cut-price signing of Yacouba Sylla gave Villa the lift they needed in midfield. In the second half of that season, Christian Benteke became the third most successful striker in Europe, wide strikers Weimann and Agbonlahor responded, and we had a bit of a team again.

Without a victory since December, the home game with the Hammers wasn’t a must-win; it just felt that way. Cometh the hour, etc. Following a largely uneventful opening half, The Zog stepped forward, only to be brought down in the box, the Beast scoring from the subsequent penalty. In short order, this was followed by a left-foot free-kick that beat the wall and the diving ‘keeper for a decisive lead. The belief flooded back in, wins against fellow strugglers Reading, QPR and Sunderland meant we were on Wigan’s trail. After a memorable win at Stoke, Charles’s neat finish at home to Fulham could have brought another three points had it not been for Delph’s unlucky own goal. In the end, we just about stayed up; the fact that we had played some of the best football seen for a long time meant that the summer was a time of excitement and anticipation.

Alas, things were upset for Villa and Charles, when he sustained a bad achilles injury while out for a fitness run during the summer. Lambert admitted that the injury meant that the winger would play little, if any, part in the 2013-14 season. His prediction came all too true. Not that this was a year that you would have desperately chosen to have played in. A decent start to the campaign suggested a mid-table finish could be on the cards, but injuries to Benteke (twice) and Libor Kozak meant that finding fit strikers became a problem.

Add in the tendency for Lambert to produce really good performances/results when not expected, immediately followed by long, dismal, losing runs, and narrow survival in the summer was the only relief. At least Charles had time to reflect on his fashion issues during his playing absence, which, judging from the horrendous floral monstrosities that formed hopefully only a minor part of his wardrobe, could have been time well spent…

Charles had little enough difficulty in regaining his starting slot in a team that started off with ten points out of four games but which then suffered six defeats in a row. There followed the final period of Lambert’s disintegration as a top-flight manager, where possession of the ball and backwards goal-kicks became everything and Benteke became a frustrated figure alone up front. After another terrible run of results, the manager’s inevitable fate was sealed, and candidate-number-one-in-a-field-of-one Tim Sherwood was installed.

 The man soon to be referred to as ‘Tactics’ as an ironic reflection to his uselessness in this regard, initially took on the appearance of a minor genius compared to his predecessor, and a more direct style of play saw a run of half-a dozen games where Villa looked the match of any opponents. Charles took his full part in these events, including that memorable semi-final win against Liverpool and a fine win at Spurs along with an unjust defeat at Manchester City. That this all fell apart after a crushing defeat at Southampton should have given the owners an idea of what was to come, but Sherwood kept his job, the abysmal form of the next season apparently needed to confirm what an out-of-his-depth chancer he was.

Any hope that Charles might thrive under new boss Remi Garde was just that. The Zog started only two games all season. With the atmosphere around B6 growing ever more poisonous, a no-doubt casual comment to the manager in training that he preferred to run with the ball, not chase it, was for some interpreted as yet more damaging evidence that the players didn’t give a toss about the club’s plight.

To no-one’s surprise, Villa were relegated in May, but the bad news didn’t stop there. Charles, at last out of contract, had a short trial at Sunderland. When nothing came of that, a return to France seemed in the offing, with Nantes apparently keen to secure the player. Sadly, there was an anomaly in the medical that showed that Charles had a heart problem, this news signalling the premature end of his career. Whatever one thinks of this footballer, the managers who used him and the huge amounts of money spent on his transfer and wages, it’s probably a good thing to remember the saying of renowned Milan coach Arrigo Sachhi that, “Football is the most important of the unimportant things.” Charles N’Zogbia learned that the hard way.

Dave Collett


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