Dave Collett remembers another Villa talent ruined by injury.
The money had almost run out by the time David O’Leary began his third and final year in charge at Villa Park. A remarkable sixth-place finish in 2004 had been followed by a mid-table one, and the Ellis piggy bank, almost but not quite emptied by the mixed fortunes of John Gregory in the transfer market, was being rattled one last time.
One of several problem areas was in defence, where the excellent Martin Laursen’s form was not matched by his fitness. To the left, JLloyd Samuel’s game had drifted somewhat since his unproductive call-up for the England senior squad. With an eye to resolving both issues, the Villa boss brought in Freddie Bouma from PSV Eindhoven for £3.5 million. Bouma knew all about the importance of versatility – he had started off as a winger at PSV, even playing with the illustrious Ruud Van Nistelrooy up front.
This ceased when he was switched to left-back at the turn of the century, with such good effect that he made the Dutch squad for the World Cup qualifiers, making his international debut in this campaign. Freddie had worked under some distinguished names, who maybe saw more in him than he did himself. Dick Advocaat liked the look of him as a central defender and played him there. The following season another revered coach, Guus Hiddinck, kept him there. Freddie did well enough to attract the interest of other clubs, which is where Doug’s, or rather our, money came in.
Trying to evaluate what we were getting for the outlay wasn’t easy. Although Bouma looked a little like a throwback to the days when burly full-backs enjoyed kicking wingers onto the running track, his early fitness record wasn’t great. Such were the low times the club were experiencing at this time that Freddie’s first claim to fame was his being in the Villa line-up that scraped a 1-0 win at Small Heath, the first victory against this organisation for many years (Admittedly, in many of those years, we hadn’t had to play them as they weren’t good enough to be in the same division as us). Nevertheless, this was a season of struggle, with many key players finding fitness hard to come by. Freddie was one of them, only starting twenty games for his new club in his first season in B6. In the end, enough of Villa’s Youth Cup winning side of 2002 had made the breakthrough to have enough of an impact to steer us away from trouble.
After the events of the summer, Bouma returned and may have been as shocked and excited as a lot of the fans to find a new regime in charge after Ellis had cashed his gold-plated chips in. The manager who had signed him had departed under a substantially-sized cloud. Bouma and the rest of us had to get used to a new boss, one who, instead of slumping against the dug-out during game after game, actually looked like he was engaged by the proceedings.
Still, it was JLloyd Samuel who filled the left-back slot in Martin O’Neill’s first game. In the next match, at home to Reading, Samuel pulled up with a thigh strain, leaving sub Peter Whittingham to slot in on that side and do well there, as well as providing the perfect cross for new Villa captain Gareth Barry to head the winner. Whittingham kept his place for the next home game and another win against Newcastle, but he wasn’t to keep it for long. Those who recall the O’Neill style of team selection may know that the job of defenders was to defend; anything else was a bonus. How often we saw full-backs getting forward without the notion or capacity to add something to an attack. Whether using the players he had been left by the previous boss or after bringing his own choices, this never seemed to change. Such a regime must have been to Freddie’s liking; after all, not much got past him on the flanks and, when he had the ball, he just had to give it to Barry or new signing Ashley Young.
With Freddie getting a run in the team and O’Neill strengthening the side with Young and John Carew, Martin Laursen and Bouma became key players at the back. Not that it was all plain sailing; it took a while for the new lads to settle, but Villa’s newly-instilled attitude of being hard to beat meant we were never drawn into the relegation scrap. Things began to turn for the better with a good comeback win at Blackburn which set up the home game v Wigan on Easter Monday.
With Villa now safe, this game should have had an end-of-season taste to it, but Wigan were very much in a battle to survive, and it showed. Already leading by an extremely dubious goal that even VAR might have disallowed, the Latics then pushed their luck too far. Antonio Valencia, later to become a distinguished full-back at the Theatre of Debt-loading, piled into a ‘challenge’ on Freddie that the Villa man was lucky to survive. Even a referee as wholly inadequate as Mark Halsey had no choice but to issue an immediate red card. The Wigan boss, Paul Jewell, offered no complaint. Freddie, as hard as nails, tried to keep going for a few minutes but was then forced to leave the pitch. I have remembered this incident down the years when players have fallen over, writhing and squealing when confronted with a stiff breeze. Some, like Jermaine Jenas, defend such conduct as ‘clever’ play, especially when it wins penalties, but only for top sides like Total Hypespurt. Well, you wouldn’t want the riff-raff benefitting from this sort of thing, would you?
2007-08 would be a key season for both Villa and Bouma. While a finish of eleventh in O’Neill’s first season was fair enough given the squad he had inherited, improvement would be sought and expected now some decent amounts of money had been spent on star performers like, er, Marlon Harewood. Improvement had been in the air at Villa Park as the last season had closed; the follow-up confirmed that Villa were a team on the rise. Young and Carew were well established and firing, Gabby was a threat up front, and though it was a disappointment when Luke Moore had to miss a few months having his shoulder injury sorted out, Villa had established themselves as a top-half club, with an eye on the Chumps League places. Behind the attacking swagger was a mean defence. Martin Laursen was the pivot, with Curtis ‘pub player’ Davies improving at a rate of knots alongside a genuine on-pitch leader. If the centre of defence looked solid, there wasn’t much joy down the sides, either. On the right was the redoubtable Olof Mellberg. On the other, Freddie, having recovered well from the Wigan game, was in and looked here to stay. His physical presence meant that no-one was going to muscle him off the ball and he had enough pace to cope with any speed merchants who fancied their chances.
My favourite Bouma memory was an away game against Blackburn. They had a decent team and we were under the cosh for a while. Instead of conceding, we soaked up the pressure, including a full volley from David Bentley which hit Freddie full in the face. I would have been asking for my broken nose to be re-set at this stage, but Bouma just shook his head as though someone had surprised him with a bucket of cold water, and carried on. The resilience paid off; Villa chalked up a four-nil win.
There were a few disappointing results at home, as visiting teams attempted to neutralise Villa’s pace up front by dropping deeper to the edge of their penalty areas, and it seemed another was on the way when we trailed by a Michael Owen goal at half-time against Newcastle. Whatever O’Neill said at half-time should have been bottled, as Villa were level almost immediately with a deflected shot following a corner. Happily, the goal was credited to Bouma, which got as big a cheer as any of Carew’s hat-trick strikes as Villa ran away with the game, 4-1. That was to be Fred’s only score for the Villa, but no-one really minded that as he was now a key player in the best Villa side for years.
Villa finished sixth that season, with Bouma’s ever-present record emphasising his importance to the side. The Dutch selectors had sat up and noticed too, so he was once again an international player. It must have been a happy summer for Fred, though one truncated slightly by the need to return to training for the InterToto cup matches that Villa has qualified for as a result of their final league position. Villa’s first game was in Denmark against Odense, a two-two draw being the outcome. Villa were expected to win the home leg and so it proved, but at a horrible price. Odense had certainly not come to lie down at Villa Park and their defence showed no sign of crumbling in the first-half as Villa attacked the Holte End. The Danish side’s game-plan was clear and obvious; soak up the pressure then hit on the break. One such move saw the ball being moved to the centre circle. Freddie was one of the few defenders left on cover and moved in to make what would be an important interception.
What happened next was a major turning point for both club and player. Whether it was the clash between the two opponents, or the defender getting his studs caught in the turf, but Bouma was left on the ground. Those who were near heard him scream in agony. Watching from the Holte, it seemed that he had broken his leg; from a distance, it seemed that the bone was bulging out of his sock. So much for appearances; Freddie had ‘only’ dislocated the ankle, the bulge was in fact his jutting shinpad, but it was clear that he would be out for some time. While O’Neill performed the sad duty of visiting the player and giving him a gee-up (a managerial speciality) he was left with the urgent need to find a replacement left-back, and sharpish, as the new season beckoned. The chosen replacement was sometime England player Nicky Shorey, a neat enough defender, who lacked some of the qualities of Bouma, though probably the best available player at the time.
Whatever one thinks of O’Neill, it’s rare to find a player who will say much against him. Fittingly, within a few weeks of this terrible incident, Freddie signed a new two-year deal with the club, an indication that he was expected to make a full recovery; this must have represented a big boost to his morale. Sadly, the recovery took longer than was initially thought. It looked like he would make a reserve comeback in the Spring, but he was found to have loose bone fragments in the joint, ruling out any chance of a return that season. I’m no expert but that sort of thing doesn’t sound too good.
The autumn promised better news, as Freddie resumed full training, until a badly stubbed toe meant another delay. By the time he re-resumed in January 2010, Villa were going along well on the pitch, again challenging for that modern holy grail of fourth place. Luke Young had switched flanks and was doing very nicely in Freddie’s old position. More importantly, O’Neill’s profligacy in the transfer market, some of which was purely down to him, had caught up with the boss, with the owner and CEO now requesting that the transfer imbalances of the last few years be sorted out; this meant the manager was now under pressure to trim the squad to help with this. Selling the likes of Villa loyalist Craig Gardner to Small Heath for a few million was one approach. Not renewing the contracts of players who were not central to the first-team was another.
So it was that the news came out that Freddie would be leaving the club in the summer. Happily, he was on the pitch one last time to say his farewells for the home game against Blackburn. He wanted to say a few words of thanks as well, but found that when the moment came, he was too choked up to take the microphone, something that he looked back on with regret in later years.
We like our uncomplicated 100%-ers at Villa Park (apologies to Ron Saunders fans) and we were sad to see him go. As the years went by, we became sadder still. It would be easier to write about the good players who have tried to fill Freddie’s boots, out of all the signings made over the years. Stephen Warnock had a good two-thirds of a season before he got a neck injury that seemed to affect his form; Neil Taylor was a good solid performer when we needed one. It’s hard to find another one who measures up, with the shining exception of the current incumbent, Matt Targett, who has morphed into a tough, hard-tackling left-back with class to offer moving forwards.
Things turned out better for Fred, happily enough. A month after his Villa farewell, he took up the offer of a trial at his old club PSV and did well enough to earn a two-year contract, even playing for them in European competition, where all his Villa problems had started. He finished playing in 2013, by which time the Great Villa Decline was well and truly on. If only his replacements, and others in the side, had shown his level of commitment, maybe much of the misery of the last decade could have been avoided.
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