There was a time, not so long ago, when Charles N'Zogbia summed up the feelings of many in the Aston Villa family and alienate most of them. After last month's defeat at Newcastle United, the winger said in a swiftly-deleted tweet that, for the first time in his career, he was not enjoying playing. It endeared him to neither his manager, Alex McLeish, nor much of the fanbase, even if it suggested he shared the supporters' sentiments about a joyless brand of football and a season of underachievement.
Yet as the Frenchman recaptured a little of his joie de vivre to provide Villa with much-needed spark, the dissent in the stands disappeared. After the mutiny at Wigan last week came a bounty at Blackburn Rovers as the £10m summer signing scored and sparkled. "He is finally starting to show what he's all about," said his captain, Stilian Petrov. "It has been frustrating for him. Maybe it took him longer to settle down but he is a good lad, great to have around."
The Bulgarian has taken on the job of imbuing a seemingly cocky character with confidence. "We believe in Charles," he added. "Every player goes through a bad period and that's why we are team-mates who support each other." His manager has long appreciated N'Zogbia's ability – McLeish tried to recruit him for Birmingham City in 2010 – but had appeared unsure how to deploy his biggest buy. At times, flair player became fringe player.
But, though McLeish is adamant he never forced his charges to don it, the straitjacket was removed as the imaginative pair of N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland were recalled. "The players expressed themselves in the first half, which is what I've asked them to do since day one," the Scot insisted. The change in mood was epitomised by Carlos Cuéllar, who provided an impromptu Gerard Piqué impression by sauntering out of defence to set up N'Zogbia's goal.
The disappointment for Villa was that their early excellence did not produce a game-clinching second. Short of specialist strikers, McLeish is now asking others to compensate. "Now Charles and Stevie have to score goals," he said. Rather than the mistrusted mavericks they have seemed, the inventive duo have been urged to become stalwarts of the side. "Stevie and Charles have to take more responsibility now that [Richard] Dunne is missing and [Darren] Bent is injured," McLeish said.
The significance of senior players was a shared theory. His Blackburn counterpart, Steve Kean, was spared a 10th home defeat of the season by one of his backroom team. "David Dunn's a player-stroke-staff member," said Kean. "We feel that when he stops playing, which we hope will be many years away, he will still be a coach at the club."
The 32-year-old's current job is to help preserve Blackburn's Premier League status; his headed equaliser was a start, with the veteran adding nous to an inexperienced side. "We are probably the youngest team in the league," Kean said. Their youth has been emphasised by the departures of the club captain, Ryan Nelsen, and then the match-day captain, Christopher Samba, in quick succession. The armband has been inherited by Paul Robinson, who led from the back with several outstanding saves, but Dunn has been tasked with being his manager's voice on the field. "He can almost be a player-coach on the pitch," Kean added.