Dave Collett writes about a Championship favourite.
After plummeting through the floor of the Premier League in 2016, there was an air of change around Villa Park that summer and, boy, did we need a change of air. Absentee landlord Randy Lerner had sold the club and had gone off to get whatever spiritual nourishment he could elsewhere, about £150 million lighter for the experience of owning Aston Villa.
The man who he sold up to was Chinese businessman Tony Xia, a billionaire (ho, ho) who made it plain from the outset that he was looking to take Villa back to the very top. He and the CEO plumped for Roberto di Matteo as the new manager. After all, Villa needed to get promotion first, (as di Matteo had done at West Brom) before moving on to triumph in the Champions League which he had also achieved as caretaker manager at Chelsea. Sounds dead simple, doesn’t it? With all these new faces at the top it hardly came as a surprise that the new boss wanted some fresh personnel to work with, Villa having just suffered arguably the worst season in their history. Things were helped along by some players who did not really fancy staying around to repair the damage that had been wrought. Happily, the fees for these folk, plus the first year of parachute payments augmented by the owner’s vast wealth (stop laughing at the back), gave us plenty to work with.
The signings of James Chester and Tommy Elphick looked to plug the disturbingly large gaps at the back. Otherwise, the Big Spend was very much focussed on what was going to happen up front. Free-scoring Ross McCormack came in from Fulham and Albert Adomah from Middlesbrough. Along with the players retained from the previous season, Rudy Gestede and Jordan Ayew, Villa looked well-stocked in this area, even with former club captain Gabriel Agbonlahor banned from training with the first team squad.
An indifferent start to the season led to the conclusion that a further boost to the strike-force was needed. The man identified was Bristol City’s Jonathan Kodjia, a man with an impressive goal record -just short of one-in-two at both Angers and since his move to Ashton Gate for £2 million in 2015. Villa’s interest was recorded in the press but the negotiations went on for some time before he signed for a suggested fee of about £11 million + add-ons, not cheap for a second level outfit like Villa. It would have been nice to welcome the newcomer into a winning dressing-room but a sole win over struggling Rotherham United represented the only good news of the boss’s start to his Villa career. Nevertheless, there was an early sign of promise when he swept a left-footed finish into the net in the home game against Brentford. Not bad at all for a player who preferred to use his right. With Kodjia, McCormack, Ayew, Adomah, Gestede and the young Grealish fit and available, it was hard to see how the team could be struggling to win. Di Matteo’s rather scattershot approach to selection often meant most of the above would be on the pitch at the same time, leaving midfield undermanned and the defence exposed to the late attacks it so often succumbed to.
One win in eleven meant the owners had seen enough and during the international break Steve Bruce became the latest appointment meant to stop the rot. Bruce deserves credit for at least achieving that. Looking at Villa’s squad and scratching your head as to why, once again, we were down near the bottom is one thing: doing something about it, something else. Bruce’s arrival saw an unbeaten run of seven games, including four home wins on the bounce – rare joy indeed for Villa fans at this time. He even, in his second game, took Villa to a late win at Reading. Hardly something to get too excited about, you might think. Nevertheless, this represented Villa’s first away victory in fourteen months, as clear a mark as you could find to show how low Villa had sunk. Kodjia nicked a goal in this one and then popped up near the end for a late and deserved winner against visiting Fulham. He celebrated this goal, and many others, with his personalised dance routine, another factor in lifting the mood of despondency that had hung over the club for too long. He soon acquired the nickname of Jimmy Danger, which he certainly was to opposing defences.
Another distinction that Kodjia enjoyed was the fact that he had studied to be an accountant in France as part of his Baccalaureate. The idea of footballers being of limited intelligence has been dying for a long time now, but here was yet more proof that their brains definitely weren’t just in their boots.
Kodjia was a bit of a head-scratcher for us poor onlookers. Quick, useful in the air, a willing runner and good finisher, he was both a delight and a frustration. It seemed a good idea to let him loose up front on his own as he didn’t seem to hit the wavelength of the other players. This seemed to work well enough on the pitch, but was a structural problem with Ayew, Gestede, McCormack and the restored Agbonlahor all needing game time up front. Ayew, though not looking especially happy (insert your own punchline here) and Adomah could at least play out wide as they had enough pace to cope with the demands of that position; the others had to wait for the call off the bench.
Though not the tallest, Kodjia had a leap on him and while not in the prodigious league of Benteke, he could pose a threat and score if the crosses were accurate enough. The nature of the player was that you could never be sure exactly what you were going to get. Coming off the back of a good winner at QPR to keep Villa bubbling under the play-off positions, he produced a truly awful performance in the Boxing Day game against Burton. Almost nothing he could do turned out right that day; even a stab into the net after a good run by Grealish was pulled up for an offside. At least Jonathan was able to keep the goals flowing with a regular supply of penalties and he signed off for the year by slotting one of these late on to preserve a point at home to Dirty Leeds.
Villa’s misfortune was that this was the year for the African Cup of Nations and Kodjia was off to try to help the fortunes of the Ivory Coast side. He was only away for a few weeks, but he and his goals were felt in his absence. Upon his return, he was entitled to wonder whether he had strayed into the wrong dressing-room. Gestede and Ayew had both departed for sizeable fees; Jordan to Swansea, where he built on the favourable first impression he had made in top-level football; Rudy to Middlesbrough to help them avoid relegation by boosting their goal-starved attack (He didn’t). The RossGate scandal meant there was another missing face from the squad, as Bruce took a long-needed stand against players who chose not earn their lucrative salaries. Finally, Agbonlahor’s belated attempt to get himself fit to play professional football again had taken a bad blow when he tore a hamstring in the last seconds of a 2-2 draw at home to Preston.
To balance up these departures, there was the promising but raw Keinan Davis, signed from Biggleswade Town by Remi Garde, who had come on as a sub against Preston. From having a wealth of options, Bruce suddenly found himself well short and so £9 millon was sent to Brentford in exchange for their prolific striker Scott Hogan. As with Kodjia, Bruce seemed to have little idea of how to supply the striker he had just bought. As a pair, they did not seem to fit together well and it began to look like a case of one or the other, just as with the more recent Watkins/Ings match-up. As Hogan had few of the skills that Kodjia possessed, there was only likely to one winner of that particular contest. Not that events ran at all smoothly. A run of one point in eight games rubbed out any credit that the manager may have stored up over the previous months. After a shameful home performance at home to Barnsley, some wondered if the prospect of that second relegation in a row might be raising its head once more.
Some managers have the label ‘streaky’ attached to them – an accusation implying that, winning or losing, they don’t have much idea how to change things to their team’s advantage. In this case, Bruce went from the abysmal run previously mentioned to taking the team on a stretch of seven wins out of the next eight. Only a single goal was conceded in this time, while at the other end Kodjia hit the hottest of hot streaks himself. Jonathan scored the first of the sequence with a looping header against his former club. This was followed by the clincher at Rotherham United. Two more in a win against a Wednesday team who were fading alarmingly after a strong start even encouraged thoughts of a late run to the play-offs. Two more strikes, including a superb left-foot finish after he had cut inside against Norwich only pushed this optimism. Another confident finish against QPR meant yet another win and with struggling Burton up next, the dream was really beginning to take shape. An early Kodjia goal after a horrible defensive mistake set us up for yet another victory at the Pirelli but Villa then fell away so badly that a draw was all we were worth.
Still, if promotion was now out of reach, at least the prospect of Kodjia becoming the first Villa striker to score twenty league goals in a season was very much alive. On current form it was surely just a matter of turning up and keeping the hot streak going. Football, of course, is always waiting around to throw a spanner in the works. So it proved here. Drawing a blank at home to Reading, who adopted a new approach to containing Kodjia by utilising methods more commonly seen in a wrestling ring without any sanctions from a referee from the extreme end of the scale of inadequacy, at least kept us waiting until the Fulham game on Easter Monday. This was the dismal occasion where Bruce decided to show the variety of tactical options at his command by switching to three at the back; the big problem being that none of the three players in question was suited to the chosen formation. Not that Jonathan’s mind would have been particularly fixed on this issue, as he had been sent off early on for an alleged foul on the home full-back, Fredericks. There didn’t seem too much happening on the replay but the despicable Fredericks writhed in convincing agony on the ground and the mug ref fell for it.
Villa, quite rightly, appealed against the decision, had the red card rescinded, but they then suspended Kodjia for one match anyway. FA disciplinary committees? Don’t ask… Jonathan missed the derby against Small Heath but was available for the trip to struggling Blackburn where, on a tacky pitch, he was injured badly enough to put him out of the game for several months with a broken ankle. So, no twenty-goal record then, and no top striker until next October. Whoever was handing out the luck didn’t seem to bother with our share.
Along with Grealish’s enforced absence, this left Villa short up front. Ahmed Elmohamady came in and played as a winger but soon reverted to his favoured right-back slot. Hogan continued to draw blanks so Villa fell back on goals from midfield, especially Albert Adomah who was surprisingly prolific from wide on the left. Keinan Davis had a run at this stage and showed plenty of promise and movement but not many goals. Kodjia returned just as Villa had put a run of wins together after a really poor start to the season had left them trailing Wolves, Cardiff and Leeds. His comeback proved to be short-lived. On as a sub at Small Heath, he almost snatched a late winner with a shot at full stretch that clipped the top of the bar. Six inches lower might have made him a hero; instead, he stayed on the ground. With no-one near him, he had damaged the ‘bad’ ankle in taking the shot. This was then aggravated later in training with his national side which ensured his absence until the Spring.
Then it was streaky time again. A poor run of results was turned around just before the new year as Bruce’s Villa put together a run of seven wins to move into second place. Lewis Grabban had been brought in on loan to boost the promotion bid, despite a sudden run of goals from Hogan (without the tally that Scott scored in January 2018, his Villa record would have been bleak indeed) and he did well, though it begged the question of what would happen when Jonathan was fit again. The answer came via another Bruce slump that contained only one win in a run of five game against mid-table sides and lower. Bruce made some changes, and Kodjia’s name was added to the sub’s bench. In a better world, he might have saved himself for the vital goal that sealed promotion but despite some effective sub appearances, he was unable to nail down a regular spot and his chances of making an impact were reduced as Villa fell short at Wembley, despite his late introduction as a sub.
He was back in the frame for the new season under the new owners. Jonathan had a run of games, including one at Ipswich where he scored with a perfect near-post header from new-man McGinn’s whipped cross. Villa then showed signs of their ambition when CEO Purslow brought in Tammy Abraham from Chelsea on loan. It took a while for Tammy to settle under Bruce. Occasionally, Kodjia would start up front with him and they showed some early signs of being able to work together in what was clearly an underperforming side. When new manager Dean Smith took over, he opted for the Chelsea man and Kodjia found himself back on the bench for a while. No doubt he enjoyed being back in contention when scoring the equaliser at home to Small Heath which helped to settle a few nerves. The next game saw Tammy hit four against Nottingham Forest which more or less ended the conversation over who the starter up top should be.
Still, Jonathan stuck around and with Andre Green, who had started the season out wide, struggling for form and fitness, Albert Adomah in indifferent form, and Yannick Bolassie cutting his loan deal short, he was back in with a chance of selection in the wider slots. When Villa recovered from their early-year slough of despond, they went on an historic run and Kodjia was needed when Tammy picked up a nasty injury after scoring at Bolton. He responded with a neat winner in the record-breaking win at home to Millwall, holding his right leg up for the admiration and approval of the North Standers and then notched another one against Norwich in that ‘friendly’ competitive match before the serious play-off business got going. Jonathan was on the bench again for these games. Deano seemed to have decided that his two wide-ish players would come from Anwar El-Ghazi, Andre Green and Uncle Albert. With Tammy the first pick up the middle, he looked to be out in the cold though it was still a surprise when he was not selected to be one of the penalty-takers for the Hawthorns shoot-out, as he had a better record than many of those picked ahead of him. It was the same story at Wembley, where Kodjia had to join in the promotion celebrations without having made a contribution on the pitch.
With twenty-five contracted players leaving the club over the next three weeks, Deano might have been scratching his head, wondering how he was going to put a squad together. One way was to retain any player that might be capable of making the step-up to the higher level. Jonathan presumably came into this category. With the big signing of Brazilian striker Wesley and the ever-promising Keinan Davis, Smith at least had options for the central striking role. Unsurprisingly, Wesley was given plenty of opportunities to justify his record fee, despite dividing opinion as to his worth. Kodjia thus spent more time on the bench than he might have liked, sometimes replacing Wes, at other times joining him up front when Villa were in need of a goal.
With Big Keinan playing well in the cup games and thoughts focussing on generating cash for the upcoming transfer window, Kodjia was allowed to join Al-Gaufa of Qatar for £3 million, a fee too large to be ignored bearing in mind FFP issues and the need to bring in a player or two in the winter window. This was after Davis had picked up a calf injury in a cup win against Wolves. When, on New Year’s Day, Ben Mee committed THAT tackle on Wesley that was to keep him out of meaningful football for eighteen months, we were left with absolutely nothing up front. Hindsight being what it is, some may have questioned the wisdom of allowing Jonathan to leave. What his impact might have been as an enforced regular is unknown. Still, he helped to turn the good ship Aston Villa around and contributed to getting us back up. And if he had stayed, we might never have seen the likes of Borja Baston in a Villa shirt. And then where would we have been?