Welcome to the fourth part of our Maverick Series which takes a look back at some of the flair players that have turned out for Villa over the years. Sometimes, game-changing talent isn’t always enough to be successful in B6 however; this week looks at David Ginola’s troubled time at Villa Park.
David Ginola’s transfer to Aston Villa back in July 2000 was a strange happening. The deal seemingly came out of nowhere and turned out to be pretty underwhelming for all involved. Bizarrely, it seemed that Doug Ellis was the driving force behind the deal, which completely went against the growing dissent towards his otherwise thrifty ways.
Ginola had just completed a successful third season at Tottenham Hotspur but was in the midst of being frozen out of North London by then-manager George Graham. All this despite just finishing as Player of the Year. By all accounts, Villa chairman Ellis tabled a £3 million bid for the Frenchman on the back of that unrest which was accepted and that was that.
The fee was the biggest of Ginola’s career. Even Newcastle and Spurs had each paid only £2.5 million for a player who was then in his prime. Despite excelling particularly during his time at White Hart Lane, the tricky winger was now 33 years old.
Relationship with Gregory
What makes the transfer even more peculiar is that it was sanctioned at a time where Ellis was notoriously tightening the purse strings. Manager John Gregory was desperate to reinforce key areas of his squad in the belief that another push at the title (Villa led the way for much of the 1998-99 season) was within reach. Despite denying Gregory his final piece of the jigsaw, in terms of several different transfer targets, Ellis splurged £3 million (plus hefty wages) on a player with little resale value. Or to be more accurate, none at all as it turned out.
Ginola did not seem to be particularly wanted by Gregory. Supporters baulked at the transfer fee, being of the opinion the money could be better utilised. And the player himself was distraught to be leaving Spurs and had little interest in coming to Villa Park. He would describe the news of Spurs’ acceptance of Villa’s bid as a ‘bombshell’.
And so, unsurprisingly, the move didn’t go altogether swimmingly. One or two glimpses of quality aside, by the time December of 2000 came, Ginola had started just two league games for his new club. Appearances from the bench failed to inspire and injuries, fitness and form all proved major obstacles to getting any kind of fluidity.
By the time a struggling Manchester City (how times have changed) arrived at Villa Park in December, Gregory had resorted to extreme motivation tactics for his Gallic genius. Pulling no punches, the gaffer commented on Ginola’s lack of fitness and described him as being like ‘Mr Blobby’.
Initially, in the game, the desired effect didn’t seem to be forthcoming. However, a poor first half gave way to Ginola rolling back the years after the break.
With Villa going a goal down, Ginola clicked into gear by standing up a cross for Dion Dublin to head home. The Frenchman clearly had Gregory’s words in mind and rubbed and patted his stomach in relation to having his weight mocked. Villa would trail again a few minutes later, but Ginola’s tail was up and knowing his assist celebration would go under the radar, he was in the mood to make his point much clearer.
With the game running out of time, a corner was cleared as far as outside the area to where an unmarked and lurking Ginola waited. As the ball dropped, Ginola connected sweetly with a low, hard volley which bounced awkwardly in front of City keeper Nicky Weaver and the back of the net bulged.
This was the moment Ginola had upped his game for. Now centre stage, he immediately removed his shirt and flexed every single muscle to reveal a torso that was much more Mr Motivator rather than Mr Blobby. This was Ginola’s ‘f*ck you’ moment.
Most memorable moment
The spiky relationship between Ginola and Gregory would be felt in the pair’s post-match comments. Gregory’s super-dry wit was often mistaken as being spiteful and when he exclaimed ‘We’ve been waiting three months for that and I hope we don’t have to wait another three’. It probably wasn’t taken in the spirit it was intended. When Ginola was asked if he had any comments, he replied ‘No. I am too fat.’
The iconic moment of Ginola removing his shirt and the circumstances surrounding it would define the mercurial winger’s career at Villa. It, unfortunately, became his most memorable moment in claret and blue, even more so that the quality goal which led to it.
Ginola’s stay at Villa Park was largely disappointing with flashes of brilliance. He would make a total of 27 appearances that season scoring three goals. That doesn’t read well, but it’s worth noting that Ginola was never a prolific scorer of goals, rarely notching above five in a season anyway.
The clash between Gregory and Ginola was just too much for the Frenchman to flourish though. There was a constant niggle between them. The relationship reached the lowest ebb during a bad-tempered league game against Newcastle United at St James’ Park in 2001. Ginola picked up a booking in the 40th minute and with the Magpies already 2-0 up, Gregory made the decision to sub the ex-Toon man there and then. Ginola’s indignance at being taken off before half time was clear for all to see with some choice words hurled at Gregory before storming down the tunnel.
In an interview with 4-4-2 magazine, Ginola would elaborate more on their relationship;
John Gregory was a nightmare for me. I was with a manager who didn’t understand me. I was there to play on a Saturday, and not on a Wednesday against the reserves. If on the Tuesday morning rather than going running through the woods and getting injured I needed a bath and a massage that is the way it should be. I don’t want any favours, but after 10 years I knew what was good for me. I would have liked him to understand who I was.
He said I was too fat, and then I pulled up my shirt to show I wasn’t. The end for me was when I saw the back of The Sun with my head placed on the body of Jimmy Five Bellies after he said: “David Ginola is Mr Blobby.” It was a lack of respect to me, and it was terrible for me.
Gregory’s management methods could certainly be divisive. Whilst the likes of Benito Carbone has hailed him as the best manager they ever played for, the flip side is a player like Ginola who clearly needed to feel wanted more. Gregory knew he had to shake the beast, and kudos must be given for identifying Ginola’s vanity as a weakness that could clearly be triggered. A good manager will think outside the box. For one game it worked and produced an iconic moment. But with a clear breakdown in the relationship and perceived lack of respect, Ginola had done what he needed to in order to make his point. There was no desire to continue to impress. And that was that.
Ginola moves on
Villa fans clearly never saw the Ginola that, even at 33, was probably still capable of becoming a fan favourite. A total of 41 appearances with 6 goals doesn’t read too badly on paper. But for so many reasons, the move never really had a chance of being successful for anyone involved.
Ginola would eventually move on a free to Everton. His brief stint at Goodison saw him wind his career down before retiring at the age of 35.
Although his time at Villa won’t be remembered for many magic moments, there is no doubt that Ginola was one of the Premier League’s best foreign imports overall, especially at the time of his arrival. For some, it may seem odd including him in this series alongside successes such as Paul Merson and Tony Daley. But that iconic goal against Man City actually showed just how much of a true maverick he really was; the ability was still there and he could turn it on. It was just the motivation that was lacking.