Bent spearheads new Houllier era
Harry Redknapp may once have compared Darren Bent unfavourably to his wife when judging the player's goalscoring prowess - but Aston Villa's desire to strike a £24m deal with Sunderland shows he remains one of the Premier League's most desirable commodities.
Gerard Houllier's biggest move in the transfer market since his arrival at Villa Park has been to secure the services of a forward who comes with a guarantee of goals. The deal is also an emphatic show of faith in his manager from Villa owner Randy Lerner.
The shock transfer has already been portrayed as either a panic move by a Villa hierarchy fearing relegation or a coup that has stunned their rivals and makes a spectacular statement of intent about the future under Houllier.
Bent's statistics prove he is a valuable asset. Photo: Getty Images
Bent rebuilt his reputation at Sunderland after an unfulfilling spell at Tottenham best remembered for Redknapp's infamous "my missus could have scored that" jibe in a moment of frustration following an horrendous late miss that squandered victory against Portsmouth at White Hart Lane.
The striker was wounded by Redknapp's remark but statistics show he scored 17 goals in all competitions in his one full season at Spurs - and despite a lack of regular football in the face of fierce competition. That is a fairer reflection of his time in north London.
Bent has often been unfairly dogged with criticism about the supposed weaknesses in his all-round game, ignoring the truth that he has been one of domestic football's most reliable goalscorers at every stage of a career that has taken him to Ipswich Town, Charlton Athletic, Spurs in a £16.5m deal, Sunderland for £10m and now Villa Park in a club record £18m transfer.
Goals come with an expensive tag - and there have never been any shortage of takers willing to pay the price for Bent.
Now Houllier, confident in the total support of Lerner despite criticism from Villa Park supporters, has staked his reputation on Bent and hopes he can score the goals that can finally point his managerial career in the West Midlands in the right direction.
Villa have had no trouble creating opportunities this season and Houllier believes Bent is the striker with the record to provide the end product, with his natural pace adding another dimension to Villa's game.
Bent's struggle to establish himself with England, although rarely given regular chances to show his true worth at international level, has also increased scepticism about his class. He appeared to be coming to terms with the unique pressures at that elite level when he ruthlessly buried his first goal for his country in the Euro 2012 qualifier in Switzerland earlier this season.
Now he must carry the burden of being Villa's record signing as well as the responsibility of being the symbol of Houllier's new era.
And one man who believes Bent's arrival is something for Villa fans to relish is former manager Graham Taylor, who told me: "He is a goalscorer. People can question whether he is an international footballer, as perhaps Fabio Capello has at times, but what you cannot question is this boy's goalscoring record at club level.
"The only thing that will matter to Gerard Houllier is whether he scores goals at club level. The answer to that is 'yes'. It is also another sign of the support Randy Lerner is giving Gerard and a sign to the Villa supporters that they will see things change at the club if the manager is given time.
"Gerard has also brought in Jean Makoun from Lyon, a player he obviously knows well. However well Martin O'Neill did, it seemed that the scouting system focused on Great Britain. The net will be spread much wider than that under Gerard.
Houllier needs time, says Graham Taylor. Photo: Getty Images
"Bent takes chances and scores goals - the most important thing in the game. He is quick, a finisher and I think it is a good signing for Villa. People may talk about it being a panic measure and look at an expensive price tag but the people who score you the goals will always carry the most expensive prices. I don't think this can be seen as a panic buy.
"The deal certainly came as a surprise to me as well as everybody else. You do well to keep a transfer of that size quiet in this day and age but Villa have done it.
"Villa have John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor but this boy is in a different class to those two as a regular scorer. Bent's past history tells you that more chances are converted with him in the side."
Taylor's assertion is supported by the evidence of Bent's Sunderland career, which began when he moved to The Stadium Of Light in August 2009. He scored 25 goals last season and added another 11 this term before his final game for the club in the north-east derby against Newcastle United on Sunday.
And since 2005 Bent, has scored 81 league goals, with only Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Chelsea's Didier Drogba ahead of him in the scoring charts, both with 82.
Bent scored 32 goals in 58 Premier League games on Wearside - an outstanding return for a striker many are too quick to label "limited" - while his speed and direct approach became established hallmarks of Steve Bruce's side.
"The signing of Bent is, as I have said, a sign that things will change under Gerard," added Taylor. "If fans give the manager time, Villa will change in a way that will leave most supporters pleased.
"If I was a Villa fan, I would be feeling much happier after the last few days, with Makoun coming in and now Darren Bent. The signings will give the club a great lift and also starts to put Gerard's stamp on the team.
"I always think you need to give a manager three years at a club before he can say 'this is my team' - and the signing of Bent is the first part of Gerard creating his own team."
Some may say Bent has gambled by dropping down the Premier League to join Villa and that Houllier has taken a punt by splashing out so much on one player - but the striker's goalscoring record makes him a safe bet as a finisher.