Gabby Agbonlahor might have lost a touch of pace – but reckons he still holds the crown as Aston Villa’s king of speed.
The Villa forward was so quick in the early part of his career that he even caught the eye of legendary American sprinter Michael Johnson.
Johnson, a former 200m and 400m Olympic champion, was blown away by Agbonlahor’s natural technique when he was invited to a training session at Bodymoor Heath in 2008.
Agbonlahor, 26, concedes that the raw speed he possessed as a youngster has slightly diminished, although his all-round game has improved as a consequence.
But he would still back himself to beat anyone in the Villa squad in a race.
“Unfortunately we didn’t time it when I was 18. I don’t think I’m as quick as I was when I was 18 or 19 because I’ve filled out a lot and I was quite skinny then,” said Agbonlahor.
“Now I’ve added a lot more to my game so you’re maybe going to lose a little bit of pace. It’s hard to say. When I was 18 and19 I was really skinny, like a little boy. Now I’ve filled out.
“Has anybody at the club ever beaten me in a race? Not that I can remember! But I am a different sort of player than I was then. I think I can hold the ball up more.
“There is more end product to my game now. If you ask a lot of people since I have come through, I think I have learned a lot since my debut. Long may it continue and I carry on learning more and more.”
That express pace brought Agbonlahor goals early in his career as he led the line for Villa in attack, although the arrival of Darren Bent and then Christian Benteke has seen him used in different positions in recent years.
Similarly the growing preference for a system dependent on one frontman has forced Agbonlahor to adapt and redefine his game to fit the formation required by the manager – 4-2-3-1 under Paul Lambert in this instance – to nail down a place in the starting line-up.
“It is a different season and it’s been different to what it was before with the whole team. You have different roles,” explained Agbonlahor.
“Three or four years ago I was playing as a striker – then you get judged on your goals. The last few seasons I have been playing more and more as a winger.
“People will see your goals in the past (and judge you) but they don’t see the position you are playing now and they don’t realise the job you’re doing for the team.
“I think that’s why it doesn’t bother me what people say because if I’m playing in a certain role I know I’m doing a job for the team rather than myself.
“For me, I’m just happy to be in the side so wherever I get told to play I will do it. It’s hard to play two up front.
“A lot of teams are adding that extra man in midfield behind strikers.
“A lot of teams are matching each other up. They will watch videos and see how teams are playing so they will match them up. That’s the way the formation is now. A lot of teams are playing that way now.
“It can be a little frustrating, yes. If you ask Andreas Weimann, who is a striker as well, he will say the same because his preferred position is up front.
“Football has changed though and so have formations. Teams are setting up and you just get on with it. If you are asked to play somewhere for the team you just get on with it and do the best you can.”
Villa fan Agbonlahor, who will make his 300th senior appearance for the club should he play in all of their remaining 11 games, also admitted the fear of relegation is driving the squad to get out of the Premier League drop zone as quickly as possible.
He added: “I think it would scare anyone, as long as you are in the bottom three it is in your mind as a player. But if it was a massive gap you would be a lot more scared, it is only a point or two and we are out of there.
“Hopefully we start getting points against the teams around us, the QPR game is a massive game, and the Reading game, and then you start to think you can climb the table. We just want to get the results sooner or later to get out.
“I am not thinking about relegation. I am thinking about helping the team to get out of where we are now. This is the league you want to be playing in, the best league in the world, there’s no reason I’d want to leave it.
“You know you need results or you are not getting out of there. But if you see a lot of teams in the bottom half of the table, they will be looking over their back.
“There is a determination to get out of there as soon as possible. Before the Arsenal game we were out of the bottom three but now we have dropped back in there.
“As I said, it would be different if you were nine or 10 points out of it.
“A couple of wins for us and we can move a few places. It is not (a feeling of) desperation, it is more determination to get out the trouble we are in.”