Looking through our squad list, there is one pivotal number that is not filled – the famous number nine shirt.
Certain numbers are seen as special at certain clubs. Manchester United’s number seven shirt is seen as an iconic number, as greats such as George Best, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo have donned that shirt. Aston Villa fans like to idolise a number nine. The problem is that nowadays our ‘real number nine’ likes to wear the number twenty shirt, so Christian Benteke is not following in the footsteps of Villa greats such as Andy Gray, Peter Withe and Dean Saunders.
I started thinking about number nines during my lifetime and Dean Saunders was the first number nine I watched for Villa. Has the number held the same prestige throughout the Premier League era?
Savo Milosevic (#9 from 1995-1998)
In 1995, the little known Savo Milosevic became Aston Villa’s record signing, taking over the number nine shirt from the outgoing ‘Deano’. Milosevic was a relative hit despite picking up the nickname of ‘Misalotevic’ in his early days in claret and blue. Milosevic scored twenty-eight goals in the ninety appearances he made in the Premier League but his highlight came in the League Cup final against Leeds in 1996, when he scored a screamer in the 3-0 victory. Milosevic had an up and down time at Villa Park and could have left us a couple of times before he did depart. The final nail in his coffin was when, after receiving abuse from the Villa away fans at Ewood Park in January 1998, he spat in their direction. He was placed on the transfer list and, although he went on to play again for the club, was sold that summer to Real Zaragoza. Milosevic went on to have a very good career in Spain and Italy and it’s worth remembering that he was a young lad adapting to a foreign country during his three seasons at Villa Park. He carried baggage but, all in all, he has to be seen as a success and he will be remembered as a decent number nine. In fact, he was the last number nine to lift a trophy for the Villans.
Stan Collymore (#9 from 1998-1999)
Stan Collymore wore the number eleven shirt in his début season at Villa Park and took the number nine shirt for the 1998-1999 campaign. Collymore was seen to be the final piece in Brian Little’s Villa jigsaw – but he never quite made the puzzle complete. Collymore only scored seven goals in forty-six League appearances for his boyhood team and controversy often followed him round. Just before he was handed the number nine shirt, it was alleged that he had punched his girlfriend at the time, Ulrika Jonsson, during a visit to Paris. Collymore only managed one goal in the Premier League wearing the number nine shirt: halfway through the season he was admitted to the Priory, suffering from depression. John Gregory, who was the manager at the time, failed to understand the situation and Colltmore didn’t play for Villa at all the following season. Collymore did provide some brilliant moments in Europe in his Villa career but he failed to live up to the likes of Peter Withe. Aston Villa fans will tend to look back on what might have been with Collymore, as he had the ability to be one of the country’s best.
Dion Dublin (#9 from 1999-2004)
I started to consider that the Villa number nine shirt has carried a curse over the last two decades. All was well with Dublin during 1998-1999, when he was wearing the number fourteen jersey, but come 1999-2000, when Dublin was handed the number nine, things changed. This was the season in which Dion Dublin broke his neck. Despite the fact that he was back playing in three months, he was lucky that his career wasn’t ended by the horrific injury. Dublin returned and bagged the winning penalty in our FA Cup semi-final shootout win over Bolton in April 2000. Despite a good scoring record, Dublin never reached the heights he had scaled in 1998-1999 in a Villa shirt. Dublin ended his Villa career with roughly a one in three goals to game ratio and will be remembered fondly by Villa fans as a good guy and a good player but he didn’t quite become an iconic number nine for the club.
Juan Pablo Angel (#9 from 2004-2007)
Juan Pablo Angel was Aston Villa fans’ darling for the majority of his six year stay at Villa Park. Angel managed sixty-two goals in two hundred and five games and only Dwight Yorke and Gabby Agbonlahor have managed more. In terms of the number nine shirt, a pattern is beginning to build. Whilst wearing the number eight and eighteen shirts, Juan Pablo managed to score a more than respectable forty-three goals in one hundred and three games. When given the number nine shirt, in one hundred and two games he only managed nineteen goals. After being handed the famous jersey, Angel’s prowess in front of goal began to fade. Injuries caught up with him and he certainly seemed to lose a yard of pace. In his best season (2002-2003), the Columbian was deadly but towards the end of his Villa career he was not so clinical. He missed some penalties, including two in one game away at Fulham and one at home to Spurs when, minutes later, he scored an own goal. Like those before him, Juan Pablo Angel will be remembered fondly, even though the number nine shirt did not serve him particularly well.
Marlon Harewood (#9 from 2007-2010)
To many, Harewood is a player who should never have received the number nine shirt in the first place but for one season at least ‘The Hare’ was a regular goalscorer from the bench and something of a cult hero at Villa Park. In his first season, despite only starting one League game, he bagged five goals from twenty-three fleeting appearances. His most memorable goal was an equalising overhead kick against Liverpool at Anfield, which Harewood celebrated with a mixture of passion and pent up frustration after months on the bench. Although he was never going to be a world beater, there was something about Marlon Harewood that I really liked and for some reason I remember him fondly. His stay was short – much of his last two seasons were spent on loan or in the reserves/Europa squad. Despite my fondness for him, he won’t be remembered as a brilliant number nine.
Stephen Ireland (#9 from 2010-2011)
When Stephen Ireland joined Aston Villa as part of the James Milner deal, it was assumed the Irishman would take Milner’s vacated number eight shirt but Ireland opted for number nine on the basis that he was one up on Milner. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Ireland played twelve games wearing the number nine shirt before changing to his favoured number seven shirt the next season. Perhaps this shows that shirt numbers have become less traditional in the modern game, as heritage and traditions have gone out the window. Ireland and Villa didn’t work out for either party so traditionalists will claim he should never have been given the shirt.
Darren Bent (#9 from 2011-2013)
Bent scored nine goals in sixteen games when he joined in January 2011 and was handed the number nine shirt for 2011-2012. Bent wore the shirt for two seasons but injuries and a declining Aston Villa contributed to his demise. We no longer had Stewart Downing and Ashley Young providing for him and their departures led to Bent scoring less frequently. Paul Lambert came in and initially things looked good for Bent as he was given the captaincy. Maybe, finally, we thought that we would get another iconic number nine. It wasn’t to be and Bent lost the captaincy (after three League games) to Ron Vlaar. As if that wasn’t bad enough for the England international, he then lost his place in the team to Christian Benteke, struggling at times to even make the match day squad.
Nicklas Helenius (#9 from 2013-2014)
Our final number nine on the list is the one we know least about. Helenius had a decent pre-season and was handed the number nine jersey upon arrival at B6 in the summer of 2013. Helenius barely featured at all in 2013-2014 and is currently on loan back at his former club in Denmark. Villa fans were calling for the Dane to be given a chance last season but it didn’t materialise, much to the fans’ angst. Only recently has it come to light that Helenius was suffering from illness and addiction throughout the campaign. Hopefully, Helenius will come back and forge a career for himself at Villa Park. At present, he joins the list of players taking on the number nine shirt with little or no success.
Without wishing to become melodramatic, it does seem that there has been some kind of curse around the Villa number nine shirt over the last two decades. No player who has worn it seems to have had a particularly easy ride whether that has been due to illness, injury, loss of form or the fact they should never have been given that shirt number.
Maybe it’s for the best that it remains vacant this season. Perhaps we should be grateful that Benteke decided not to take it as he’s had enough injuries without it. My message to any Villa player who thinks he may fancy it next season would be to stick with what they’ve got, as Juan Pablo Angel, Dion Dublin, and Darren Bent could testify.