Well this is a transfer story that I don’t think any of us saw coming – Sunderland striker Darren Bent, £18m and a move to Gerard Houllier’s Aston Villa revolution.
But why was the man who had scored 36 goals since his £10m move to Wearside 18 months ago, and was a hero with the supporters at the Stadium of Light, so keen on a move away?
It has come to light that the player handed in a transfer request following the derby-day draw with Newcastle United on Sunday.
However, it is also believed that 26-year-old Bent handed in a similar request to his former employers during the summer – however, that request was rejected by the Sunderland board, kept quiet and attempts were made to appease and keep happy the England striker.
So this latest transfer request wasn’t just a bargaining ploy by Bent for a new contract (ala Wayne Rooney), but was actually a request from a young man who had become genuinely unhappy on Wearside.
And it would appear that this unhappiness had been taking it’s toll on the player’s form – Just one goal since November for a player who since 2005 is behind only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney in terms of Premier League goals scored.
Therefore, it would appear that Bent, for whatever reason, needed a move away. The £18m deal, which with add-ons could rise to £24m, certainly appealed to the player. Let’s not be naive, the £80k per week wages will have certainly appealed, but so will the chance to create a new piece of history at a club who 29 years ago were European Champions. The move has certainly lit a fire under Bent.
But the deal, a club record fee paid out by Aston Villa and received by Sunderland, could also work for both clubs.
On paper, losing your best source of goals over the last 18 months doesn’t look like the smartest of moves. However, in August Steve Bruce banked £13m, a club record transfer fee, on Ghana striker, Asamoah Gyan, the 2010 African footballer of the Year.
Gyan is a striker very much in the Bent mould, but perhaps with a little more to his game. Both are terrific finishers in and around the penalty area, undoubtedly.
But perhaps Gyan is the better all-round footballer. Certainly he is the stronger of the two, superior in the air and with better link-play. Indeed, whilst he took a month or two to get used to the Premier League he has since been very impressive for Sunderland, most notably in the 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge – when he was partnered by the on-loan Danny Welbeck and not Darren Bent.
The pairing of Steve Bruce’s £23m strikeforce didn’t pay dividends, despite the clubs ascension into 6th place in the Premier League table, for Bruce’s expensively assembled strikeforce did not work well in tandem.
Maybe they were too similar to work together. It certainly seemed that way.
They both make similar runs, both prefer to play on the shoulder of the last man and both look to peel to the far post in the penalty area.
It is neither players fault that they couldn’t bring about the best in one another, as there strengths are what they are both good at, and make them the players they are. But what they both profit from is an unselfish striker alongside them, someone who does their best work outside of the penalty area who likes to drop deep and pick up the ball – someone like Welbeck or even the available Spurs striker, Robbie Keane.
Therefore, if Bruce believed that his two first choice striker’s couldn’t work in harness well enough to get the best out of both, then his best option was to sell one.
And the one for whom he would undoubtedly get the best price is Darren Bent – reasoning that would explain the change in tact from the club who were keen to not let Bent’s August request enter the public domain, to now selling their top scorer at a considerable profit.
Therefore, pocketing £18m, plus add-ons, and Bent’s wages – he was the highest earner at the Stadium of Light – will allow Bruce to bring in a player of proven quality to play off of Gyan, either now (as previously stated, Robbie Keane is available) or in the summer transfer window.
Or the money will allow Bruce to add a couple of players to improve his all round team – maybe Charles N’Zogbia from Wigan or a couple of unknowns who will go on to be unqualified successes – see Wilson Palacios’ time at Wigan Athletic.
Either way, it gives Bruce options, that will allow him to take Sunderland forward and may help him to define what Sunderland are, what they can be and what they can achieve.
For Villa, in the midst of a difficult season of upheaval as Gerard Houllier looks to change the whole ethos of the club, the signing of Bent could be the spark that ignites Houllier’s entire reign.
Firstly, the signing of Bent should guarantee that Villa have enough firepower to get themselves out of trouble this season. This will in turn buy Houllier time to get Villa back to where they were, something which will appeal to Bent; playing European football.
Since his arrival, Houllier has been trying to implement an entirely new style at Villa Park, one that differs immeasurably from the previous regime.
Under O’Neill, each week you knew the Villa starting XI (Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Downing, Milner, Petrov, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew) the 4-4-2 formation that would be employed and the fast-paced counter-attacking style of play that would be on display.
Since his arrival, the former Liverpool and Lyon boss has been trying to implement a slower, possession-based game at Villa park, utilising a flexible 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 formation, aswell as the 4-4-2 system, and it has so far been unsuccessful for a number of reasons – injuries to key players and strained relationships between Houllier and some senior players being chief amongst them (Houllier has made peace with defender Richard Dunne once again, thankfully for Villa fans).
In the long run, if the Frenchman is given time to do his job and can bring in the right personnel, then this way of playing – similar to those being employed at Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – will allow Villa to compete once again for European places.
Indeed, Villa owner Randy Lerner and Chief Executive Paul Faulkner certainly feel as though Houllier is the man for the job and are backing their manager to the hilt, with not only the deal for Bent, but also the £6m aquisition of Olympique Lyonnais’ midfield destroyer Jean Makoun – an excellent signing.
In Makoun, Villa have a player who has a good passing ability, who is tenacious in the tackle and has a fantastic engine, a top-quality player with Champions League experience – An all-round midfielder that the Villa supporters have been crying out for.
But even moreso, perhaps since the days of Dwight Yorke, the Holte End faithful have been screaming for an out-and-out goalscorer, a 20-goal-a-season man.
Juan Pablo Angel, Bosko Balaban, Emile Heskey to name but three have tried and fallen short.
Gabby Agbonlahor has at times looked the part and could prove to be a good foil for Bent, with his lightning pace and ability to run the channels effectively.
The Holte End will be more than happy with Bent, regardless of price, because at Premier League level, the striker is the real deal. At Premier League level there is no doubt about it: Darren Bent will guarantee goals.
If Villa can get the ball in and around the penalty area then Bent will do the rest, no question.
And Villa will get the ball in and around the penalty area, and create chances for Bent.
Whether it be from the left foot of Stewart Downing or the right foot of the precocious youngster Marc Albrighton it will come in with quality.
And then there’s Ashley Young, the creative hub of the Villa side, for whom Houllier and his board’s next piece of business must be to tie down the England international to a new long-term contract (Young has only 18 months left on his current deal).
Young has the ability to unlock even the tightest of defences and if he can be retained, then Houllier has a front four – Young, Downing, Albrighton, Bent – who will ask questions of even the meanest backlines.
Something that was levelled against Villa during Martin O’Neill’s time at the club was that they were a 20-goal striker away from being a top-4 team rather than a top-6 side.
With Bent in the side, perhaps 18 months late, Villa will be more than capable of getting back to where they were last year, next season and maybe beyond.