England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce has hailed his side’s “fantastic commodity” in striker Gabriel Agbonlahor but says the target man still has work to do before he becomes the finished article.
Pearce gave Agbonlahor a second chance this year after a club v country row last summer which meant the Aston Villa striker did not respond to his call-up for a training camp before the European Under 21 Championship Finals.
Villa manager Martin O’Neill later took the rap for that misunderstanding, claiming he had sent the player off on holiday because he had played virtually every minute of Villa’s season, when injury allowed. In the end, England went out of the competition to their Dutch hosts, losing 13-12 in a penalty shoot-out.
However, Pearce is a long-time fan of Agbonlahor and was prepared to give him another shot - a decision which is paying off with Agbonlahor having struck the net five times, including in the qualifying stages of the 2009 European Championship against Portugal.
He also scored the winner against Wales in the first leg of the play-off final at Ninian Park in Cardiff last Friday.
Pearce, who sees his side face Wales at Villa Park on Tuesday with a 3-2 lead after Friday’s first leg, said: “Gabby gives us a cutting edge with his pace and power up front. I think he is a major threat at this level and in the Barclays Premier League.
“He is one of the big driving forces behind Villa when they do well. He and Ashley Young - another to come through the England Under-21s - provide their cutting edge. I think he is improving but if you ask me if I think he could do better? Yes, I do.”
Pearce is convinced Agbonlahor is close to a senior England call-up and suggests his own relationship as the assistant to national coach Fabio Capello means players like Agbonlahor, who catch the eye and make an impression with the Under-21s, can earn a recommendation to the senior squad.
Speaking at a press conference at Villa Park yesterday, Pearce continued: “Gabby’s primary goal must be to win a game and score some goals for us tomorrow and then he needs to have a tilt at getting in the seniors on a regular basis.
“I fully expect every player to commit to their country. If you don’t commit to your country, then where is your commitment in life?
“I think Gabby can improve all-round. His pace is legendary and I don’t think he can improve that but his sharpness around the box? Possibly. His goal-scoring can improve, his hold-up play – everything; that’s the beauty of it.
“I think the more Martin (O’Neill) coaches him here and the more we have him working with the Under-21’s, I think more of an improvement you will get from him.”
Agbonlahor has certainly worked on his physical strength over the last two seasons and has also developed a power to shrug off tackles when and if defenders can catch up with him.
Pearce added: “Physically, he is a very strong boy. If you look at the goal he scored against Portugal, he came under a very strong challenge that he held off before he rolled the ball past the goalkeeper.
“If you look at Theo Walcott and see what his pace did for the seniors against Croatia and on Saturday against Kazakhstan, Gabby has that same characteristic about him. At international level, that is a fantastic commodity to have.”
The Under-21s trained at Villa Park yesterday prior to tonight’s big game, with Pearce admitting he had been very impressed with the set-up. An electrician before he moved into full-time football with Coventry City in 1983, Pearce joked: “I spoke with Gabby and said ‘this isn’t a bad place to earn a living’. It’s better than Brent Council where I was and that’s no disrespect to them!
“It’s a great place to come and work. It’s a fantastic training ground, the pitch is unbelievable, we will have a good atmosphere and I think everyone throughout the squad – especially Gabby, as this is his own club – is looking forward to this game and will want to put a show on. The squad is fiercely proud of the record we have at the moment and we want to win the match.”
A crowd of up to 25,000 is expected, with Pearce convinced that interest in the Under 21s has never been so high. He said: “We have had sell-outs at Derby, at Leicester, at Coventry, I believe. The Midlands has been very supportive and I think under-21 football is very well-supported.
“The fans look at the talent in the squad, they look at the spirit within the camp and that resounds around the country wherever we take the players.
The winners of tonight’s play-off will join the seven qualifying group winners in next season’s finals in Malmo, Sweden. Tickets tonight will be available on the gate, priced at £10 for adults and £5 concessions.