Dave Collett remembers a time best forgotten.
Rudy Gestede’s first success in football came when Cardiff City signed him on after a trial at a pre-season training camp in Seville in 2011. He must have enjoyed his time in the Welsh capital, helping them to the League Cup final of 2012 with a semi-final penalty against Crystal Palace and not looking out of place in the final itself against Liverpool. Peter Whittingham quietly took over in the midfield that day and Cardiff were full value for the 2-2 draw but were squeezed out on penalties, with Rudy failing to register. His following season was disrupted early on by injury but he recovered to play a full part in Cardiff’s title-winning campaign that saw them back in the top division for the first time since the 1960s. As is so often the case, a player good enough to help his side to promotion wasn’t deemed good enough to keep them in their new, elevated, position. This was the way it worked out with Gestede ,who soon found himself out on loan back to the Championship to Blackburn Rovers, where he did well enough to earn a permanent contract.The goals flowed in his second season and a hat-trick against Small Heath helped him to top the vote for the Championship Player of the Month Award for March.
When Christian Benteke’s release clause (no jokes about bidding wars, please) was triggered in the summer of 2015, Villa fans wondered how the club would replace such a dynamic and prolific striker. Benteke’s goals had just about kept the club at the top level for the last three seasons. In the same spirit that embraced the replacement of a recently-departed left-winger, Tim Sherwood tried a collective approach; having already signed up former loanee Scott Sinclair from Manchester City, he brought in Jordan Ayew and Gestede, the latter for a fee in the region of six million pounds, in the hope that three forwards could, between them, close the anticipated ‘Benteke Gap’ in performances, assists and goals.
Rudy had to start on our bench against newly-promoted Bournemouth. With Villa coping reasonably well with the home side’s attacks, we slowly grew into the game. Rudy’s appearance as a sub midway through the second half coincided neatly enough with our increasingly attacking impact. A right-wing corner looked threatening as Micah Richards shaped to head it towards the home goal but it was the man lurking behind him, Gestede, who made a clean contact with the ball to head the winning goal and lift the away support on a sunny, happy day. Had they known that this was to be the only away win of the entire season, or that this mini-triumph was to be one of only three league wins in total, they wouldn’t have been so content.
The home game against Manchester United gave us a first proper look at the big man up front. To be honest, his impact was less than overwhelming. Though taller than the men set to mark him, Gestede showed little enough when the ball was in the air, facing his own goal. Downstairs wasn’t too clever, either, as Villa, as we so often did, settled for a narrow defeat against our illustrious opponents. The early showings confirmed the worst fears regarding the new signing; whereas Benteke was akin to a force of nature, holding the ball then building the play, with the option of going himself (and almost impossible to shift off the ball at times), Gestede was pretty good at winning the jumps, had a reasonable touch on the ball and a short passing range. He didn’t hold the ball particularly well for a big man and was also incapable of matching the memorable runs and strikes that frequently highlighted Benteke’s time. After the feast that was The Beast, Rudy was thin gruel,indeed. It wasn’t quite Bambi on Ice but it was leaning that way. Gestede, therefore, was hardly the ideal foil for the burgeoning talent of Grealish, who had thrived upon being given early chances by Sherwood to link up with Benteke earlier in the year. There was little prospect of this type of relationship being established with the new man, especially as the young tyro had developed a few ‘lifestyle’ issues which hindered his progress as a professional footballer. All in all, it was a predictable recipe for disaster.
As Sherwood’s doomed team settled into a rhythm of serial defeats, a brief League Cup run provided some relief from the procession of gloom. The win against a ‘physical’ Notts County side put us into the third round and paired us with local rivals Small Heath. With Villa on a dire run, the visitors spotted a chance of rare glory in B6. A poor first-half home showing gave them some encouragement but the introduction of Grealish on the left saw the beginning of a promising link-up in that part of the field. The youngster’s superb technique meant that getting on the ball posed no problems for him and he was able to feed new left-back Jordan Amavi in the wider areas. Amavi had, at this stage, certain shortcomings in his game, but his ability to whip in a good ball from the wide areas was not in doubt and when he crossed such a ball into the box, Gestede took delight in running onto it and planting a perfect header in at the near post. A good goal and a winner, to boot. Suddenly, the penny had dropped; big Rudy liked crosses that were put in front of him if he was to be used to the best effect.
As if to affirm that this was no fluke, Villa’s next game at Anfield gave us a repeat performance. This time, Amavi’s cross was even better and the header from Rudy could hardly have been placed more perfectly into the very top corner. The cross was superb but the header recalled memories of Hateley, Lochhead and Gray in its unstoppable power. If it was good that the team had at least one on-pitch link that was working well, the bad news was that the promise was unfulfilled. By now, Tim ‘List of One’ Sherwood’s side was well into its run of six defeats that would cost the manager his job -too late for some, but typical of the way the club was now run. Such was the paralysis at ownership and executive level, that decisions were only made at the last possible moment, presumably to delay the compensation payments to the latest failed management and coaching staff.
Remi Garde was the new appointee, a somewhat underwhelming choice. Villa also spoke to David Moyes, then suffering something of a lull in his career. However, Moyes had made it clear that for him to come, root and branch change in the running of the club would be necessary. This may have sounded rather rigorous in nature to the absentee owner and his placemen, so the usual shambles continued. If there was any luck around at this time, it was mostly bad. Having found a way to maximise the talents of Gestede, that particular avenue of potential prosperity was cut off when it became apparent that Amavi, playing for the French youth team during an international break, had damaged his cruciate ligaments and would not be seen again for the rest of the season. There was no-one else on the books who could provide such quality crosses, apart from that other Jordan, Veretout, but his speciality was dead-ball deliveries and anyway, the French midfielder was hardly guaranteed a starting place.
Fans hoped for some sort of new manager bounce but apart from a little more resilience at the back, the winless trail continued. Indeed, one wondered if it would ever end. The only hope was that the January transfer window might allow the boss to bring in a few new faces that might bring some pride back to the shirt. Garde had at least earned this much by chalking up the first home win of the season against Crystal Palace. The winner was the softest of goals but no-one felt too fussy at this stage. When this was followed by a merited draw against shock champions-elect Leicester, with Gestede’s deflected equaliser earning the point, some even dared to dream that at least Villa would go down fighting. This mood was encouraged further with a draw at the Hawthorns, where Villa were the better side, a clear penalty award being denied them in the second half.
What was needed now was for the board to encourage this minor improvement with a couple of judicious signings. Instead, the window passed without a penny being spent. Apparently, Garde, upon doing a little detective work of his own, found that players who he had been assured by club officials had no desire to join Villa’s relegation fight, were, in fact, quite happy to consider coming to B6. This betrayal of the manager meant he now had to rely on those players who had brought the club to its current mess, including those whose status as professional footballers belonged only on paper.
Gestede managed another header in a regulation defeat at home to Everton. Such was the predictability of outcomes in this run, that a goal shaped like a special thrill. As Rudy’s effort came when the score was 0-3, it had no bearing on the result. Perhaps it helped take just an edge off the chill in the directors’ box, where advisor to the board Brian Little was apparently having to explain to CEO Tom Fox that his ‘excellent’ shirt sponsorship deal for that misbegotten season did not mitigate Fox’s responsibility for his club being rock-bottom of the league.
When Garde’s miserable time came to a close, Eric Black was brought in as an interim coach, presumably on the grounds that there was no available masochist of any serious reputation who wanted to be associated with this utter shambles. If only for a Vic Crowe or Graham Taylor! Black’s reign contained two positive contributions; he fined the club captain for being so overweight that he was not fit to be selected, and a 0-0 draw against Newcastle broke up a record-equalling run of eleven consecutive defeats.
With a new owner in place and parachute payments in the offing, it was hoped that new manager Roberto di Matteo might be able to put a decent team out and get us among the promotion scramble for 2016-17. The first home game against Rotherham saw a win – a novelty in itself – and a convincing one it was. Gestede scored the team’s first league goal of the campaign, meeting Ally Cissokho’s left-wing cross and heading back across goal and in at the near post. This was followed by a second when Ross McCormack, unencumbered by drive-gate issues, played a neat one-two with Rudy who showed skill and some elegance in chipping the ball home. A full volley from Jordan Ayew’s cross in the second half might have completed his hat-trick but the shot flashed just wide and it was left to Grealish’s spectacular dribble and shot to complete a desperately-needed win.
Alas, this happy day was to prove the falsest of dawns. For Roberto, this was both his first and last victory. The new owners at least gave the impression that they were following what was going on and the plug was duly pulled in October. That Steve Bruce was the new manager was not exactly the news that fans wanted to hear, but now, slipping towards the relegation zone and looking a fair bet to cut a trail that Sunderland would follow a mere year later, beggars could not be choosers. As things turned out, the phrase ‘steadying the ship’ proved more than a cliché as Villa went on an unbeaten run of seven games under the new boss.
Rudy played some part in this run, though probably not as much as he would have wanted. The problem was really an unbalanced squad. Gestede at this stage was competing with Johnny Kodjia. Jordan Ayew, McCormack and Gabby Agbonlahor who, having been banished to training on his own and ostracised from the first-team, now found himself back in the running under Bruce. A young Keinan Davis was also making a good impression in the second team so the manager’s striker selection process was a difficult one. With other parts of Villa’s squad looking a little threadbare, it looked like some of these players, and a few others, could be on the move in January.
Kodjia, an early season signing from Bristol City, was the pick of the striking bunch, at least as far as finding the net was concerned, so he was well established in the side. Rudy thus often found himself on the bench. He struck home the decisive penalty against his old club Cardiff and was fouled in the box in a late attack at home to Leeds for Kodjia to register with a spot-kick that was worth a point.
As January arrived, Rudy was one of the first out of the door. Middlesbrough, having replaced us in 2016, were struggling now they were back in the Prem, especially in the goalscoring department. They had already splashed some money at Villa Park in the summer, bringing in the remarkably talented yet serially non-productive Adama Traore. Despite this, goals remained in strictly short supply yet it still came as a shock when they offered Villa their money back for the Benin international striker. The offer was too good to turn down, Villa accepting with alacrity to both reduce their glut of forwards and allow the new manager some financial support for January strengthening.
It would be nice to say that this was one of those transfers that work well for both the player and the two clubs involved; the reality was that it just wasn’t so. Villa received a hefty fee for Rudy but then wasted it -and more – on his replacement Scott Hogan, who may himself make it to this column one of these days. Boro hardly felt the benefit of their new signing as Rudy struck just once for his barren team, a consolation goal at Old Trafford. Following relegation, Gestede recovered from a dead leg injury that ultimately required surgery, only to then fall victim to a fractured ankle. He came back at the very end of that season in the play-offs, where he was brought on as a late sub at Villa Park by boss Tony Pulis. Though theoretically suited to Pulis’s ‘style’ of football, Rudy made no impact against Mile Jedinak and an untroubled Villa went through to Wembley.
Injury continued to curse Rudy and he played fewer than twenty-five games over the next two years. An average of one goal for each of these seasons appears to put him in the Agbonlahor category and it was no surprise when his contract was not renewed. That winter, Rudy showed up at Melbourne Victory in Australia where he proved to be the joint top scorer at the club with five goals. As his wonderings continued, he played three games for Pantolikos while scoring a single goal before settling down at Tehran’s Esteghlal on a two-year deal. For once, the modern phrase ‘amazing journey’ could be taken literally as a player who struggled to start for the worst Villa side in living memory kept trying to find a place where he could get his game back. In Iranian football, he averages about one goal for every six games. In the end, he’ll perhaps be regarded as the cliched one-season wonder, a man who looked like he might develop into a very useful player but who had to settle for one outstanding season before quietly fading away. In the sometime bear-pit that passes for football opinion, not everyone will see that for the success that it is.