It was the saving grace in what became Aston Villa’s worst league campaign for a generation – Jordan Amavi’s pinpoint cross to Rudy Gestede the flash of quality required to see off Birmingham City at Villa Park.
For the first and quite possibly final time that season, the Holte End was brewing for eruption when Amavi bent his delivery into the box to assist the first-second city victory at Villa Park for five years. ‘Waiting for the net to bulge’ is often an understatement when the French full-back sets his sights from the left flank.
He was one of the few excused members of Villa’s 2016 relegation squad – although blighted by injury, his time at Villa Park is fondly remembered by Villa fans for his commitment and attitude to a seemingly lost cause.
After spending the vast majority of his two years at Villa on the treatment table, Amavi was installed as part of an exciting French revolution at Villa.
Before selling the club in the following summer, former club owner Randy Lerner failed to attend a single game at Villa Park throughout the 2015-16 season. Lerner appointed Tom Fox as the chief executive, Hendrik Almstadt as the director of football, while Paddy Reilly took the role as director of recruitment.
Between the three, the ‘Moneyball’ system – an objective statistical approach to player recruitment – was adopted to spend within the realms of Lerner’s financial restraints.
Villa welcomed 11 new arrivals to Bodymoor Heath, including Amavi, to prepare for the upcoming Premier League season – Villa’s 23rd consecutive campaign in the newly-assembled top-flight. Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Ayew and Jordan Veretout were all identified with statistical and numerical proficiencies compared to their Ligue 1 counterparts.
Villa ended the Premier League season with 17 points, 22 points away from safety having won only three times in 38 games, but there were far deeper-lying problems than simply the playing squad, let alone those new to the most competitive league in the world.
Adama Traore is now excelling at Wolves and Veretout impressing at Roma, while Gueye continues to impress for UEFA Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain. Amavi, however, was always a player popular among the Villa faithful, a left-back destined for bigger things than Villa’s assault on the Championship.
In a £9 million deal, Amavi joined Villa from Nice in 2015. His infectious personality ensured he was well-liked around the training ground and his quality on the pitch made him almost instantly Villa’s shining light in the opening months of the top-flight campaign. Soon, however, his early promise was shot and his career at Villa marred through injury.
A freak, long-term cruciate knee ligament injury put paid to any decent trajectory the left-back may have had in his first season at Villa Park. It was during a France under-21 friendly against Northern Ireland in November 2015 that Amavi suffered a season-ending blow.
The Frenchman had only made 12 appearances in all competitions before his season came to an abrupt ending at the Stade du Roudourou. A spirited 0-0 draw against Manchester City offered Villa fresh hope of a season turnaround as Remi Garde started well in what was his first game in charge following the sacking of Tim Sherwood, but Amavi’s injury quashed a lot of that hope.
Amavi didn’t feature again until pre-season under Roberto Di Matteo, as Villa swapped divisions and managers again. The Italian manager was the third of four permanent bosses Amavi would work under in just under two years at Villa Park, but he played for the shirt above all else.
You cannot buy loyal Amavi
As Villa embarked on their first league campaign away from the Premier League, Amavi was keen to repay the faith shown in him from Villa, by offering his services for another season in the Championship, despite his obvious capabilities to play at a higher level.
The full-back revealed that French giants Marseille tried to sign him that season – but he wanted to remain loyal to the club who offered him a chance to play in the Premier League and helped him through his injury rehab.
“Last winter they (Marseille) wanted to recruit me,” Amavi said in 2017.
“It didn’t happen because I just got back from my injury and I was in a club that was counting on me and who supported me during my injury. It’s true it happened at a bad time.
“I had just done a full season at OGC Nice, then Aston Villa. It’s in your head that you need to stay strong. I started to become more positive.
“So I made the decision to stay there. I was happy there and I wanted to stay.”
Amavi made his long-awaited return to action but in difficult circumstances. Seeing the Frenchman wearing claret and blue again was the only positive for Villa supporters at Kenilworth Road, who watched their side go 3-1 down in a League Cup defeat to Luton Town in August 2016.
During the early stages of his comeback, Amavi was by no means a regular, which was totally understandable given the severity of his injury. Di Matteo only started Amavi twice in the Championship with compatriot Aly Cissokho playing the role of Villa’s first-choice left-back before Tony Xia’s first choice manager was sacked after only 124 days in the job.
New boss Steve Bruce opted to use Amavi ahead of Cissokho after a calamitous couple of games for the former Liverpool man jeopardised Bruce’s start to life at Villa Park. Bruce saw Amavi as a winger rather than a full-back and occasionally experimented with him further forward once Neil Taylor had signed in January, in a swap deal for Jordan Ayew.
And like that, every one of Villa’s five signings from the continent, apart from Amavi, had departed for pastures new while Villa languished in the second division. Though, with Taylor offering safety rather than the attacking verve of Amavi, for Bruce, he was the preferred option for the left-back slot.
Combined with the fact that Amavi was one of Villa’s most saleable assets as the club tried to avoid breaking any Financial Fair Play regulations, Villa reluctantly let go of their man. Conflicting reports of how Villa kept a hold of Amavi in the January window were muddied when Xia proudly announced on Twitter: “Don’t bother reading this. “I can tell we have rejected an offer of £25m for @JordanAmavi. He will grow bigger at @AVFCOfficial!”
— Dr. Tony Xia (@Dr_TonyXia) December 27, 2016
Reports in France had stated that Marseille are looking to sign the left-back as part of new owner Frank McCourt’s recruitment drive, as sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta began talks with Amavi’s representatives over a potential move.
Despite Amavi initially rejecting the move, Europe’s elite clubs would soon come calling when Amavi was put up for sale only a few months later. First to call was six-time UEFA Cup and Europa League champions Sevilla.
While Xia or even Bruce for that matter worked on a deal to bring in John Terry to the club, Amavi made a quiet exit as he boarded the plane to Spain.
The then 24-year-old was excited by the prospect of playing Champions League football with Sevilla and competing against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, but not all went to plan.
The Spanish club informed the press that Amavi had failed his medical to the contrary of Amavi’s camp, who refuted those claims.
“During the medical, all goes well,” Amavi said.
“That evening, when I returned to my hotel, my agent called me and told me they didn’t want to sign me. He says they found something in my right knee, the one I had an operation on.
“I saw a specialist who was a foot specialist. Therefore, it had nothing to do with my injury. He made me do two or three tests. Basic ones, I mean, for a specialist… even I was surprised.
“Then, that evening, I return to my hotel, and my agent calls me again and says they don’t want me.”
Homecoming: Amavi finds European football with Marseille
As fate would have it, Marseille never dropped their interest in Amavi as sporting director Zubizarreta followed his career in England closely and maintained relations with his representatives.
Amavi eventually signed for Marseille on August 10, 2017. He was sold by the ‘project’ proposed by Marseille, while the incentive to learn from one of France’s greatest left-backs in Patrice Evra also played a part.
Former Manchester United and Juventus defender Evra had joined Marseille six months prior to Amavi, but the former Villan would dislodge him in Rudi Garcia’s starting side during his first year at the club.
Joining on an initial 2016-17 season-long loan before penning a permanent contract at OM in a deal worth up to €10 million, Amavi was thrown into the deep end right away. While many expected Amavi to make an instant impact in his first season back in Ligue 1, the Frenchman took a couple of months to nail down his starting spot as he deputised in a nervy 1-1 draw against Angers before playing in a disappointing 6-1 defeat to French champions Monaco.
Garcia experimented with a wing-back system to accommodate Amavi’s attacking competencies, but to little avail, and Amavi would have to continue competing with veteran Evra.
“He’s (Evra) had a great career,” Amavi said.
“He is not just anyone. He will bring in his experiences and then it’s up to me to make the most of it.”
The door was open for Amavi who was emboldened by Evra’s continuing downward spiral as he was continually singled out for his defensive fragility with fans demanding for other options. They got their wish when the former Man Utd captain kicked out at a supporter and subsequently was dismissed from the club.
In his first full season back in his native country, Amavi developed into one of the best players in his position across the whole of Ligue 1. He performed admirably in a stunning 4-2 win over former club Nice, picking up two assists in the 3-3 draw against Strasbourg as well as a rather stirring 90 minutes against Paris Saint-Germain, making a superb tackle on Kylian Mbappé to preserve a point for Marseille.
The French club – with aspirations of Champions League football – didn’t bother to sign a replacement for Evra, leaving Amavi as the only left-back for the entirety of a season that lasted 62 games across four competitions that also included a defeat in the Europa League final to Atletico Madrid.
Amavi suggested that a full season in the Championship was the perfect grounding for his career ahead.
“I have learned that you need to be strong in duels, because it’s a very strong championship,” Amavi said.
“I learned how to go into offence, because they like that, and to have a solid defence. I learned a lot about that position. You learn to play to the 93th, 95th minute and to never let go. The game could change at any moment.
“I have lived games like that, that’s England. Ligue 1 is more tactical, let’s say. In England, in general, if they can attack throughout the entire game, they will.”
Garica would leave Marseille after a disappointing fifth-place finish in Amavi’s second season at the club, but the following 2019-20 campaign would turn out to be a memorable one.
Under former Chelsea and Tottenham boss André Villas-Boas, Amavi cemented his starting spot with little competition to disrupt his ever-improving game. Marseille finished as Ligue 1 runners up in what was the club’s joint-best finish for a decade, following the league’s Coronavirus cancellation. Despite still finishing 12 points behind champions PSG, Champions League football was on the horizon for Amavi.
Losses to Olympiacos and Manchester City have dampened hopes of a Champions League run this season, but Amavi has found the level that he promised to reach after only a handful of performances for Villa. It takes a special sort of player to become a fan favourite during his brief stint at the club, especially in the cauldron of emotion that cascaded Villa Park almost five years ago.