Football: Joachim jockeys for his position

A quicksilver striker finds no substitute for a first-team place.
Click to follow
FACING THE possibility of their championship challenge fading into mid-table comparative obscurity, Aston Villa will today meet Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in a challenging match that threatens further discomfort. But one gleam of light has shone through this dark mid-season decline... Julian Joachim.

The irony of Villa's situation, which was exacerbated by an FA Cup defeat inflicted by Kevin Keegan's Fulham, is that not long ago their manager, John Gregory, was dismissive of the idea that Stan Collymore was suffering from depression. At present, there is a collective depression hanging over Villa Park, the more so now that Dion Dublin has injury worries. That makes it all the more frustrating for Joachim, the tough, quick little striker who has never been in better form and is the club's leading scorer with 11 goals.

Not that frustration is new to this resilient Peterborough-born 5ft 6in former Leicester City player. His time at the club since moving from Filbert Street for pounds 1.5m early in 1996 has often been disappointing. Most of his first season was spent as a substitute or scoring goals for the reserves. He had hoped that would lead to more chances in the first team but his tendency to lose possession held back an otherwise exciting talent.

His opportunity to establish himself as a useful decoy for bigger strikers and prove a successful goalscorer himself arrived probably less as a result of his own form than the departures of Tommy Johnson to Celtic and Dwight Yorke to Manchester United, and also the arrival a year ago of John Gregory as manager. Gregory has walked a tightrope with Joachim's career, allowing him to develop while bringing in new players who have added to the competition for front-line places.

Joachim is 24 and says he is at the point at which he can no longer afford to be seen as a good but not automatic first-team choice. Last season he made 16 full League appearances and 10 as a substitute, becoming the club's second-best goalscorer behind Yorke, but it was not altogether a coincidence that he began this season still with the squad number 12. Gregory has done a lot for Joachim, who admits that in his time at Leicester he spent most of the nights between matches pursuing the good life at the expense of his career. He was never completely fit for the day job. Also, a serious foot injury set him back six months. After Gregory arrived at Villa he gave Joachim, who had won nine England Under-21 caps, the chance to prove himself. "He needed to become a better all-round player," Gregory said. "He had to be more aware of other players around him".

As Villa quickly moved up from within sight of relegation to a place in Europe, so Joachim became the busy, effective striker that he has remained, even in recent weeks when Villa have slipped off the top of the Premiership. In effect Gregory set him a challenge by buying Paul Merson and Dublin and again relegating him to the bench. Joachim admits that nothing is more important to anyone who has been a fringe member of a successful team than "feeling wanted".

He realised that he had to work particularly hard on one aspect of his game, the making of space and time to assist Dublin or Collymore and make regular goalscoring opportunities come his own way. His pace has never been in doubt. Indeed, Gareth Southgate reckons that Joachim is possibly "even quicker off the mark than Michael Owen".

Collymore's temperament and absences are not things the Villa players talk about in public, but after Collymore had scored a hat-trick against Stromsgodset in an away Uefa Cup tie earlier in the season Joachim knew that his own hard-won first-team place was again under threat. "I just had to wait and see what the boss would decide to do. I thought you could argue that none of us, Stan, Paul or myself, deserved to be dropped." But, again, it was Joachim who was. "It's difficult to take, but you just have to think of it as one of those things. Competition for places is what it's all about."

In his first two years at the club he was a substitute more than 30 times. "You have to accept that at all of the top clubs these days it's a squad game. In the past, some players got first-team places and were never challenged." The worst problem with being a fringe member of Villa's first team was that he was not even playing many second-team matches. "I kept getting a few minutes with the first team which stopped me playing for the reserves so I wasn't ever really fit. I never did myself justice when I got on the pitch".

Recently there has been talk of his being called into the England squad, though whether his inability to embarrass Fulham last month will be a plus or minus in Keegan's eyes is impossible to tell.