Does Gabby Agbonlahor deserve a new contract?
Without doubt, Gabriel Agbonlahor is one of the first names on the team sheet, still, and the club's leading goalscorer in Premier League history -- but is he worthy of the reward of another four-year contract? An agreement which, should he stay for its duration, will surely see the striker finish his career -- or certainly the top-class element of it -- at Villa Park.
Villa supporters have had to adjust their thinking over player signings, salaries and contracts in recent years. Gone are the days where third-choice right-backs could be recruited on bloated contracts, and picked to play every few months, or less than that. After a lean few years of selling star players, isolating other big-earning senior pros with a view to removing them from the squad and replacing them with those whose financial expectations are significantly lower, Villa don't play fantasy football anymore.
Neither do fans judge a signing purely on talent alone: that innocence has gone. Transfer fee, age, weekly salary and -- perhaps most importantly -- sell-on value, are all evaluated. Supporters still, of course; but also accountants and businessmen.
So to Agbonlahor, a key player for the club now as much as he's always been. Over the seasons, his stock has risen, arguably because Villa's biggest and brightest players have, one by one, departed the club. The striker is the single reminder of when Villa are competing for a place in the top six, rather than merely trying to stay out of the bottom six. He's the hero who didn't leave and, yes, there's a loyalty which justifies a contract extension. Agbonlahor's Erdington roots, a long stone's throw from Villa Park, makes it an emotive issue.
Sentiment aside, Agbonlahor remains one of the few genuine top-class -- and by that I mean proven Premier League quality -- players at the club. There are not many of those. Brad Guzan, Ron Vlaar, Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke would be the undisputed others, with two or three edging close, but not yet completely in the same bracket.
At his best, Agbonlahor is a handful for any defence, primarily because of his pace, which is still intact even though his physique is fuller than it once was, but also because the player has improved his awareness. He gets his head up, spots the run of a teammate and can deliver an effective cross and assist. He's also versatile, having developed from a fairly rudimental type of centre-forward to a wide forward, tasked by his manager to cover more of the pitch, in all directions.
His contribution, so far this season, has been mixed. Gabby's been good in flashes. His goal at Southampton in December stands out, a wonderful run and finish, while his first-half performance against Liverpool in January was superb. But Agbonlahor is on for his most unproductive season in terms of goals scored; just three in the league, and all of those shoe-horned into a run of six games either side of Christmas -- against Swansea and Sunderland in addition to Saints. He hasn't scored since New Year's Day.
Last season, Agbonlahor had scored just a single league goal heading into the middle of January but then found his form, hitting eight in the club's last 14 matches as Villa escaped relegation. A similar burst would be brilliantly received but recent performances haven't suggested a player about to go up a gear. Instead, Gabby has looked tired and leggy in the past few weeks, susceptible to nagging injuries.
He's not necessarily past his best. He only turns 28 years old this October. But is Agbonlahor going to get any better? Probably not. He'll remain a useful attacking option for Villa, capable of real impact, but it's unlikely he'll recapture the consistency and prolific instinct which used to see him regularly reach double figures in league goals. It's this knowledge which makes a fresh four-year deal -- for a player whose current contract expires next summer -- look a little indulgent on Villa's part.
But, at certain clubs, some players are worth this kind of treatment. Consider the situation Frank Lampard was in at Chelsea last season, with his contract running down. His performances were still sound, and he was obviously adored by the club's supporters, but Lampard's longer-term future is only heading in one direction. Chelsea's decision to offer him a new deal owed more to an appreciation of his game than making a saving on the wage bill, and there's talk of the midfielder being offered a further extension shortly.
Then there's Wayne Rooney, the beneficiary of a new deal reportedly worth a huge 300,000 pounds a week at Manchester United. For that amount of money, United could afford just about any player in the world. They offered it to Rooney because the club's management knows, and accepts, that he is one player the supporters cannot bear to lose.
This is why Agbonlahor will be given the chance to stay at Villa. Maybe four years is too long, given the trajectory of his performances over the past 12 months, but his departure from the club would be keenly felt, and for all the wrong reasons. Ask yourself this: as a Villa fan, how would you feel seeing Agbonlahor in the shirt of another club? Answer that, and you have your answer to the bigger question.