Aston Villa played their first pre-season game on Thursday night against Mansfield. Using a completely different XI in the first-half compared to the second, the game gave manager Paul Lambert the chance to tinker with his formation and personnel. The fact that Villa won the game 3-1, despite this experimentation, provides even more positivity for the Holte End faithful.
Arguably the most interesting point that came out of the friendly fixture was Lambert's decision to reintroduce the infamous "Bomb Squad." Darren Bent, Alan Hutton and Charles N'Zogbia all played a key part in the friendly fixture despite being left rotting on the scrapheap for so long.
In this article, we take a look at the surviving members of the notorious Aston Villa "Bomb Squad" and ask whether they should be given another chance in the claret and blue jersey.
Introducing The "Bomb Squad"
The "Bomb Squad" was a name given to the overpaid and underperforming members of the Villa squad—namely Darren Bent, Alan Hutton, Charles N'Zogbia, Shay Given, Barry Bannan and Stephen Ireland—who were tossed aside by Lambert over the past two-years.
Many of these former stars were forced to train alone or with the youth team in an attempt to force them out of Villa Park. All of this was done in an attempt to save money on wages and try to recoup transfer fees for the unwanted players.
Lambert's decision to isolate players—many of whom were international stars who had commanded high transfer fees—was a strange one considering Villa's plight in the Premier League. His decision to get rid of unwanted players could have been applauded if Villa were not struggling in the Premier League.
However, the club only just managed to escape relegation in 2012/13 during which the "Bomb Squad" formed. The Villans did little better last season without these players, as again the club only just avoided the dreaded drop by finishing 15th.
On leaving Villa for Stoke last season, Ireland shed some light on the situation at Aston Villa as he confirmed that there were effectively two squads at the club, per the Metro:
I knew the writing was on the wall at Villa back in March and they made the decision before last season had even finished. They had two squads, one they wanted to keep and one they didn’t, and I was in the second group. I never called it the Bomb Squad, although a couple of the others, like Darren Bent, took it to heart more than I did.
It’s been a difficult few months but now I’ve never been so determined to prove a point. There are quite a few people I want to stick two fingers up at. I don’t hold any grudges against Paul [Lambert]. He made it clear why the decision had been made but I understand all the reasons behind it.
Similarly, Scottish international, Hutton, also publicly spoke out about his treatment at the start of last season after Villa blocked a proposed loan-move back to Spain, per the Express and Star:
There were lots of us; Darren Bent, Stephen Ireland – I am talking international players – and Charles N’Zogbia, who have just been put to the side. For me it is not what should be done. We are not kids.
I was buzzing for Barry [Bannan] that he got out because he is a great player and doesn’t deserve to be treated like that. Unfortunately for myself it didn’t come off and I am angry about it.
As alluded to by Hutton's quote, Bannan moved on to Crystal Palace and Ireland completed a move to Stoke— after initially joining on loan—to escape their Villa Park nightmares. Given was sent out on loan to Middlesbrough before being surprisingly incorporated into the coaching setup. The remaining members were unable to secure permanent moves away from Villa Park and instead were either shipped out on loan or made to rot in the reserves.
Despite this, the decision to feature Bent, Hutton and N'Zogbia in the Mansfield friendly came as little surprise. Lambert recently admitted that he had wiped the slate clean for the previously exiled stars. As reported by Mat Kendrick at the Birmingham Mail, Lambert had said that "Everyone is even now, everyone is level. It is publicly known what is happening. Everyone is on a level playing field”.
The former Tottenham and Sunderland striker was signed by Gerard Houllier in January 2011 for a club-record fee close to £20 million. He scored nine goals in 22 league appearances in his debut season, per Transfermarkt, and was named captain by new boss Lambert at the start of the 2012/13 campaign.
However, injuries, a lack of form and the emergence of Christian Benteke saw Bent's opportunities at Villa Park limited. Despite being a lethal finisher with vast Premier League experience, Lambert was reluctant to bring him back into the fold. He finished the season with just three goals and 16 league appearances to his name, per Transfermarkt, and was deemed surplus to requirements.
Bent joined Fulham on-loan last season, however, the former England striker made little impact, scoring just three goals in 24 league appearances for the now relegated side, per Transfermarkt. He returned to Villa Park after the loan finished and has since been linked with transfers to Newcastle, via Alan Nixon at the Mirror, and both Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor, per Bill Howell at the Birmingham Mail.
Neither deal has materialised though. In a complete turnaround, Bent featured for Villa in Thursday's friendly and didn't harm his chances of winning back a place in the starting XI as he scored twice. The first goal game from a trademark tap-in and his second came from a close-range header in the box.
The Scottish right-back was signed by Villa in September 2011 from Tottenham in a deal worth around £3 million. Under Alex McLeish, Hutton made 31 league appearances for the Villans, per Transfermarkt, but was never favoured by Lambert when he joined as manager.
With first-team opportunities at Villa Park little but a pipe dream, Hutton was loaned out to Championship club Nottingham Forest, then sent to Spain with Mallorca for the latter part of the 2012/13 season. Having been banished to train with the kids, the former Rangers' man was again farmed out to the Championship last season—this time with Bolton Wanderers—as he became more isolated at Villa Park.
So much so, that Lambert admitted earlier in the year that Hutton had been frozen out because he was earning too much. As reported by John Percy at The Telegraph, Lambert was quoted as saying:
It will be unlikely he will ever play here, he knows that, but we need to get the [wage] structure down to a level. He trains away from the squad, his fitness is not a problem.
Every time he has played for Scotland, he has done well. I can’t understand why no one has come in for him. There has never been a fallout. Is it all do with money? More or less, yes. I wouldn’t have thought this situation could carry on for another 12 months.
Despite being seen as surplus to requirements at Villa Park, Lambert has recently blocked an approach from West Bromwich Albion to sign the right-back. As reported by James Nursey of the Daily Mirror, Hutton is allegedly looking to speak to Lambert to understand why he won't let him escape his Villa Park hell, particularly considering previous comments made by Lambert.
Even though Lambert has recently celebrated two years in charge at Villa, Hutton is yet to play a competitive game under the Scottish manager. Despite this, Hutton was included in Thursday's friendly against Mansfield. He came on as a second half substitute and, operating as a wing-back, provided an assist for Bent's opening goal.
Villa signed N'Zogbia in the summer of 2011 for a reported fee of £9.5 million following the sales of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. The France International played 30 league games for the club in his debut season, managing to score twice and provide six assists, per Transfermarkt.
The following season the winger repeated the feat, scoring two goals and providing six assists in 21 League appearances, per Transfermarkt. However, a knee injury ruled him our for a significant part of the season.
Things got worse for N'Zogbia as he sustained a serious Achilles injury whilst keeping fit on holiday. It had been hoped that he'd be out for only a few months, but the former Wigan player did not feature at all last season. He returned to training—with the youth team—in the early part of 2014.
Despite appearing to have suffered a similar fate to that of Hutton, he was assured by Lambert that he was only training with the kids for fitness reasons, per Mat Kendrick at the Birmingham Mail:
It’s just in my opinion he isn’t ready for training in the first team at the minute. It’s too much for him. Charles has been training with the kids. His injury is the same as Christian’s got. It’s really bad.
He’s still really short of match fitness. You can do all the training you want, you can work with the fitness lads, but for this level of football you’ve got to get yourself up to top level. I don’t think he’s ready for anything like that at the minute.
The winger appears to have recovered from his injury and came on as a second-half substitute in the win over Mansfield to play behind the front two strikers.
The Future of the "Bomb Squad"
The reason why Lambert has completed a U-turn is up for debate. It could be that the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has seen the error of his ways and realised that his strict stance was harsh and inappropriate.
It could be that the financial situation at Villa—with just £10 million to spend on wages and transfers—means that he is unlikely to significantly add to his squad, thus needs to make do with what is at his disposal.
Another option is that it could be that Lambert knows that there is little chance of being able to offload the former outcasts so he is getting his money's worth rather than just wasting wages on unused players.
Or, more likely, it could be a combination of all three with a number of other factors that we are not privy to.
So what should happen to the "Bomb Squad"?
The ideal situation is that every member would have been sold. Although Bannan and Ireland have long since departed, the remaining trio are earning more than £150,000 per week according to Mat Kendrick at the Birmingham Mail.
The money saved from these wages could have been used to tie the likes of Fabian Delph and Ron Vlaar to long-term deals, with any money recouped from their transfers—Kendrick estimates around £10 million combined—used to top up Lambert's pitiful transfer kitty.
However, this has not been the case despite Lambert's best efforts to force the players out and it looks increasingly likely that the three will stick around until the end of their contracts—Bent and Hutton see their contract expire at the end of the season, whilst N’Zogbia has two-years left.
In my opinion, all three could play a part in the upcoming season. The decision to reject West Brom's approach for Hutton is a strange one and suggests that the defender could still feature in the team. Hutton is strong at going forwards, and if Lambert switches formation to three centre backs with two wing backs, the Scottish international could arguably be a better option than Matt Lowton or Leandro Bacuna on the right.
People continually call Bent a prolific finisher, but the truth is that he has scored just six league goals in two seasons for Villa and Fulham. For him to score, he needs to be receiving balls into the box rather than playing as a target man like Benteke does.
It is no coincidence that Bent thrived at Villa when he had wingers like Young and Downing providing the ammunition. Bent gives Lambert a Plan B, but only if the likes of Cole, N'Zogbia and Jack Grealish can provide the service.
N'Zogbia is often criticized for his attitude and arguably has only ever had a few good performances in a Villa shirt. Despite this, the Frenchman can provide flair, creativity and a good set-piece delivery—something that Villa often lack. With the likes of N'Zogbia, Joe Cole and Grealish in the squad, the Villans may just have enough individual quality to transform a game, either in the starting XI or from the bench.
They say everyone deserves a second chance—as a Villa fan I'm hoping that these three outcasts take the opportunity with both hands.
What do you think? Should the "Bomb Squad" make a return?