Dave Collett remembers a Villa Park career best forgotten.
It’s forever been a mystery to me why Villa have never employed my encyclopaedic knowledge of football to inform the club’s strategy regarding transfer targets; they could also ask me about tactics and selection while they’re at it, as I’m known to be a generous soul. Nevertheless, this unjust iron rule was still in place in August 2012, when a mate of mine, big Derby fan, asked me if I fancied wandering down to Chesterfield’s home ground to see a pre-season friendly between Town (as they’re known round here) and the Rams.
I say the Rams, but really it was more like a reserve line-up for the visitors as they prepared for the new season. The game was something of a non-event, though a casual glance at the result indicated a giant-killing of sorts had taken place as the home side ran out 3-1 winners. Having had our lunchtime needs satisfied by the purchasing of a Jackson’s pie apiece (recommended), and seen the game in pleasant early autumn sunshine, we wandered down the road to enjoy a pint or two in the Derby Tup, while picking the bones out of the game.
Sad to say, neither of us amateur experts flagged up the burgeoning and obvious talent of the player who had scored a brace of goals to decide the outcome of the match, one Jordan Bowery. This was hardly surprising, as Bowery’s goal record in the lower leagues came into the one-in-six category, not something to catch the interest of bigger clubs. It therefore came as a surprise to hear, within a few days, that Villa had pounced on the last day of the transfer window and snapped up Bowery for a sum thought to be in the region of £400,000.
The manager in charge at Villa at this time was Paul Lambert, a manager who had established a strong reputation while taking Norwich City from the third tier to the Premier League. No doubt along that route he had seen Bowery in action at first-hand and presumably saw the young man as a good buy to boost squad numbers. Whether Lambert had seen the Derby game, and had also availed himself of the Jackson’s Pies, is not known. Certainly, Villa were in need of a boost, as their opening two games had both ended in defeat. Lambert had already brought in a few new players, but the nature of the start meant that some late purchases were needed. On the same day, Ashley Westwood came in from Crewe and some Benteke bloke that no-one seemed to have heard of, except for the previous boss, McLeish, who had scouted him and put his data on Villa’s system for future reference.
With goal-expert Darren Bent back to fitness and Gabby Agbonlahor still looking like a professional footballer, the promising Andreas Weimann pushing for a claim after a good finish to the last campaign and new man Benteke clearly competing for a starting place, it wasn’t immediately apparent where young Jordan would slot in. However, it was possible to put him into the ‘one for the future’ frame and not fret too much if the new man made little immediate impact.
Looking at Jordan’s skill set, it was hard to spot what he had in his make-up that his rivals for a place didn’t have. He was a strong well-built player, though hardly able to match the burgeoning Beast in this regard. For a tall lad, he was pretty quick, but would have been second to Gabby in any foot-race. As noted with his most recent scoring record at Chesterfield, there wasn’t much danger of him wearing the B6 goal-nets out. Some still felt that Darren Bent, despite a bad injury in the previous season, would still deliver on that front. What about the buzzing energy of Weimann? Well, Jordan seemed eager to improve but he was still behind Andi in the queue as far as that quality was concerned.
If this all seems rather pessimistic as far as Jordan’s immediate prospects of action were concerned, the prediction was confirmed by the limitation of Bowery’s development to a handful of appearances – on the sub’s bench. Even here, he was unused until, bizarrely, he was introduced in the second half of a 5-0 defeat at Money City. What exactly the benefit of this might have been, only Paul Lambert can say. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere and his next brief view of the bright lights was as a late sub in the 8-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge, leaving Jordan to contemplate the hardships of playing in a desperately struggling team. It wasn’t even a case of third time lucky either, as Bowery came off the bench again in a dismal 3-0 home defeat to fellow-strugglers Wigan.
A New Year’s Day is supposed to offer a fresh beginning, and it was certainly a different experience when Jordan got on the pitch at the Liberty Stadium. Not only were his team not roundly thrashed, they weren’t even beaten; indeed, had it not been for a cruelly late home equaliser, Villa would have chalked up an important win. Let’s hope Jordan’s contract included incentives like draw bonuses. If this doesn’t sound like much, it was to be more than another month before Jordan actually started a league game and bagged a win bonus to go with it. Big Sam’s West Ham seemed fearful of Benteke’s power and rearranged their formation in the hope that three centre-backs would cope better than two; it didn’t work and Villa were able to benefit with their first win in two long, painful months.
Bowery’s position was further challenged by the arrival of Simon Dawkins, a striker-cum-winger, on loan at the end of the transfer window. He was given preference for the next few games to see what he could do, which wasn’t much, to be honest. Jordan was to win this particular battle and started to see more sub action and even grabbed a starting spot in a vital game at Stoke. Watching this, it was hard to understand how Villa were in such a mess, as they swept at the home side from the first whistle. Gabby’s early goal helped matters but Villa should have been clear by half-time with Bowery going close and Weimann striking the post. Jordan might have scored after the break as well, and though Stoke went on to equalise, Villa surged back with two fine goals for a memorable win.
It would be nice to look back at this game as a turning point, the moment Jordan Bowery showed he was ready for the Big Time. His power and pace and willingness to get forward had served Villa well in this game and meant that he kept the slot for the next one, at home to Fulham. However, in a less vivid display, Villa had to settle for a 1-1 draw, with Jordan removed from the action on the hour mark. The next few games would decide Villa’s fate, but the impressive showing at Stoke was not enough for Lambert to start the young striker again and only when Villa’s safety was assured, did Bowery get onto the pitch at Wigan as a late sub. When the numbers were crunched, Jordan was marked down for ten appearances, not bad for a player trying to find his way in the new league. More revealingly, only three of these had been starts and there had been no goals to celebrate.
If Bowery was hoping for a sign that he had done enough in his debut season to at least draw some faith from the manager, then he must have been disappointed at the turn of events. First, Christian Benteke, rumoured to have put in a transfer request after his nineteen league goals had narrowly ensured Villa’s safety, signed a new four-year deal to commit his immediate future to the club. This was great news, with the hope that this iconic striker would be able to re-establish his fruitful relationship with fellow-strikers Agbonlahor and Weimann. On top of this, Lambert swooped to bring in not one extra striker, but two. Czech Libor Kozak was reported to cost something like £6m, while young Dane Nicklas Helenius was another promising forward who made a good impression in the pre-season games. Oh, and there was also some talk about a young lad who was tearing it up at youth team level and had been outstanding in Villa’s summer triumph in the NextGen international youth tournament which Villa had won in Lake Como. Some were beginning to talk about Jack Grealish like he was a nailed-on future first-team player.
With that little lot in front of him, Jordan must have wondered what the point of him being in B6 was. So it went, initially. The first half of the season saw him make the bench about a dozen times, actually getting on the pitch for half of those. After the new year, even this meagre return dried up, as he seemed further from a first-team place than ever. Then, when he must have felt at a low ebb, the Football Injury Gods decided to intervene. Kozak, hardly an inspired signing, but a player who at least knew where the goal was, found his season ended by a team-mate’s tackle in training. Grant Holt, an old acquaintance of Lambert’s, was brought in on loan as a stop-gap replacement. Benteke was clearly the main man to deliver the goals that would keep Villa up, as he showed with a couple against Norwich. A win in this game, then, startlingly, against Mourinho’s reduced Chelsea side, meant that Villa were almost clear of trouble in March.
Then came another training ground blow. Benteke had ruptured his Achille’s Tendon and would be out for six months. Helenius, who had given a decent impression of his technical ability in a poor cup defeat against the Blades, was also injured before other problems completely side-lined him. Putting one’s faith in survival into Grant Holt didn’t seem the wisest move as the defeats began to mount up and Villa were slowly being dragged back to disaster. Suddenly, the last home game against cup finalists Hull, took on the shape of a must-win game, with two decidedly unpromising away fixtures to follow.
The start could hardly have been better – or worse – for Villa. The opening minute saw Gabby run at and through Curtis Davies before crossing the ball towards the penalty area where, after a bit of indecision, Ashley Westwood thumped the ball inside the post. As the celebrations died down, it became apparent that Gabby had been caught by his opponent, possibly on his tendon, and had to come off near the twenty-minute mark. Who was the man in Villa’s hour of need? None other than our Jordan, who found himself up front with Andi Weimann. Sadly, before this partnership could come to fruition, Bowery found himself confronted by the Law of Sod. A Hull free-kick found Liam Rosenior in a suspiciously offside-looking position, and as the ball came in it took a flick off the hapless Jordan and the visitors were level. Well, at least he had got himself a goal in a Villa shirt. Only a fine save from Guzan prevented Huddlestone putting Hull in front, and things weren’t looking too good as the break approached. Then the sun shone, for once, on the home side. A corner was allowed to bounce around the six-yard box and there was Weimann with a brave header to put us in front. This was good news for the striker, as he had, to use an O’Neill-ism, failed to trouble the scorers for some considerable time. No sooner had we happily anticipated a half-time lead, then we scored again. This time, the assist was from Jordan, who whipped in a good cross from the left with his right foot, and there was Andi to glide his header in by the far post.
After the break, Lambert settled for a ‘what we have, we hold’ approach. Even so, Bowery made life a misery for the Hull centre-backs as he worked the channels well on the break. Before this game elements in the press were praising Curtis Davies’s recent form, wondering if this could result in an England call-up (stop laughing at the back). Not on this showing, mate. Bowery might even have levelled up his account with a goal for the right team but his angled drive was well saved by Steve Harper. Chuffed as he must have been to play a part in such a fateful win, the good news continued into the midweek when he was picked to start against wannabe champs Manchester City. No doubt he would have enjoyed it all the more if he hadn’t received a bang in the face which required a nose-plug and was probably a contributory factor in his being replaced on the hour. The game was goalless when Jordan was withdrawn; with that Grealish kid coming on, we went on to lose 4-0 (I always thought he was over-rated). He kept his place for the season-closer at Spurs, where Lambert was no match for the tactical mastery of, er, Tim Sherwood. Bowery went off at half-time with Villa already three down, and that’s how it stayed.
And that was it, as far as the Bowery Villa story was concerned, though his own narrative continued. A trail that takes in names like Rotherham, Oxford, Crewe and Mansfield confirms that JB wasn’t made for the top level, although his scoring record has slightly improved over the years. He even bagged a hat-trick for the Stags this season, to give his numbers a boost. There’s nothing wrong with signing lower division players in the hope that they improve over time. Two other Lambert signings, Westwood and Lowton, are proving that over at Burnley as I write. When things don’t work out, you have to move on and find a place where you can get a few games and prove your worth. That’s what Jordan Bowery did and he’s still doing it now.