Villa investing in Bent's promise of goals
"I can't believe how well it's gone. If the offer of an extension came up I'd be more than happy to sign it. It's all about the football up here. It's all passion, passion, passion, but the supporters' intensity has never scared me. They are looking at me to get the goals and that is a massive confidence booster." Darren Bent, December 2010.
Though the motivation behind Darren Bent's decision to stun Sunderland by penning a transfer request, rather than putting his name to a new contract at the Stadium of Light, may be difficult to ascertain at present, there is no doubting what convinced Aston Villa to part with £18 million, rising to £24 million, to secure his signature. The second part of December's apparent declaration of faith says it all: in his own words, people look to Bent to "get the goals".
And get them he does. Since his arrival in the English top flight following a £2.5 million move from Ipswich to Charlton in June 2005, Bent has scored 81 Premier League goals. Only the lauded Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney - players who adorn the front of videogames, and decorate walls from Chile to China - have surpassed that tally with 82 apiece in the same timeframe. Bent's record in all competitions with Sunderland reads: played 63, scored 36. It is a deeply impressive strike rate for a side outside the established elite.
But doubts remain. Neither Sven-Goran Eriksson, in 2006, nor Fabio Capello four years later were sufficiently impressed by seasonal tallies in excess of 20 goals to allocate a much-prized World Cup place to Bent. Meanwhile, his spell at Tottenham was blighted by inconsistency, and unwarranted abuse from his manager Harry Redknapp, as Bent failed to fully grasp his opportunity at a big club. The suspicion persists that he is prolific, rather than brilliant.
It is for those reasons, and not his enviable statistics, that at first glance the £18 million that Villa are prepared to immediately part with seems high - fantastical even - in a market climate that priced Rafael van der Vaart at £8 million in the summer. But it is a calculated gamble by Aston Villa, if a high-stakes one.
After all, if there is one thing that the club currently situated 17th in the Premier League needs, it is goals. Stewart Downing is their top scorer in the league with five goals, while Emile Heskey, their most prolific striker, sits alongside defender Ciaran Clark with three. Gabriel Agbonlahor is yet to score in 13 Premier League appearances while John Carew, victim of a falling-out with Gerard Houllier, has also drawn a blank.
In their current predicament, with a young and callow squad struggling for inspiration, Villa need an injection of impetus, a focus for optimism, and they hope Bent will be the man to provide it. His record certainly suggests he could be.
They are not buying a complete forward in the mould of Thierry Henry, a talismanic inspiration from the Eric Cantona school or a visionary genius like Gianfranco Zola. But goals are Bent's currency, and he trades prolifically in them. Left alone to spearhead an attack - a role that was denied to him during the only blot on his club CV at Spurs - he has proven he will thrive, and decide games on a regular basis.
In fact, with the arrival of Sunderland's £13 million club record signing Asamoah Gyan in the summer, it could be argued that Bent's effectiveness has declined with the arrival of a fellow goalscorer to steal his thunder, and one league goal since November certainly suggests a tailing off of form. A share of the limelight will certainly not be a problem in Aston Villa's turgid attack at present.
Whatever the reason for turning his back on Wearside, Bent's decision certainly appears a perplexing one. Swapping an upwardly-mobile Sunderland side, placed sixth in the table, for a relegation battle is bizarre, even more so when you consider Bent has always cut a very happy figure in the North East, and has enjoyed a very amiable relationship with Sunderland supporters.
Certainly the transfer, if it happens, reflects badly on Sunderland. Under the ownership of Ellis Short and guidance of Niall Quinn and Steve Bruce, the club appeared to have made significant strides this season - most notably the England debut handed to Jordan Henderson and the acquisition of Gyan, a member of the Ballon d'Or award long list.
Bent's determination to leave represents regression on the club's part. It also generates confusion as to the striker's own intent. For Aston Villa, though, it is a huge show of support in Houllier, and a statement of intent for a side banking on their imminent new signing's goals to lift them clear of relegation danger.