Angel finds mercy for a family dedication

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The Independent Football

When Juan Pablo Angel scored his first goal against Varteks in the Uefa Cup on Thursday night he kissed the Aston Villa crest on his shirt. But, in truth, that score was dedicated to Maria Paula. And his second goal soon after, well, that one was for Geronimo.

Maria Paula is Angel's wife, Geronimo his baby son; the family who constitute the only factor in his life more important than football and the scoring of goals. It was the serious illness of Maria Paula and Geronimo which, unrealised at the time, blighted Angel's £9.5 million move from South America last season and which seriously affected his form and his ability to settle at Villa.

A name like Angel is fodder to the headline merchants. As Juan Pablo struggled through a nightmare (424 minutes before he even landed a shot on target, only one goal between his arrival in January and the end of the season), he was a Fallen Angel. On Friday one tabloid hailed him as an Avenging Angel. At last, thank heaven, that nightmare seems over, though he remains a Reluctant Angel.

Partly because he is not yet comfortable with the English tongue, Angel fights shy of contact with the media. Our talk was conducted in the privacy of the officials' changing room at the club's Bodymoor Heath training ground, away from other eyes and ears. And, though he is happy enough to discuss football, he does not want to talk about the family crisis which brought the spirits and the talent of this handsome 25-year-old Colombian so low.

The facts are these: within days of Angel's arrival from his previous club, River Plate of Argentina, Maria Paula was hospitalised, first with gallstones and then for the removal of her gall bladder. Geronimo, their child of three weeks, was also taken ill with the after-effects of the long flight. And there were, as Villa's manager, John Gregory, revealed on Friday, problems with their accommodation, too. The Angel family had been housed temporarily at The Belfry, which lies adjacent to the Villa training facilities. More temporarily than they thought.

"We put them in an executive suite at The Belfry, only for them to get kicked out, literally," said Gregory. "The hotel had booked a whole floor for a company let, where they were going to make lots of money, and wanted the room he was in. So they were kicked out. I think he was offered a single room down the corridor. With his wife in bed ill and the baby also ill, I think Juan Pablo found it difficult to get his head round that.

"Imagine going to live on another continent and you're on your jack and suddenly your wife gets taken to hospital. You go down there to see her and can't speak a word of English. So he had all those things and still had to go out and play on Saturday. He came out of The Belfry thinking his wife and kid might not be there when he got back. All that, and he's still got a smile on his face, still wants to be a success. He deserves a lot of credit for still being in the country. I am surprised he didn't pack everything in and say he was going back home. But he has just got on with the job."

Getting on with the job has meant that, in four starts this season, Angel has scored four times. There were two against Basle in the InterToto Cup final round and two more in the 3-2 defeat by Varteks. "He didn't have a particularly good 90 minutes on Thursday," said Gregory. "But, as always, I hope he plays as bad as that next week and scores two more."

Scoring more is what Angel has lived for since he kicked a ball about on the streets as a kid in Colombia. "I feel happy when I score," he said. "When I don't score I feel hungry, because this is my job. When I first came to England it was difficult because of my problems, but people understood and sent me their best wishes. When the problems stopped I immediately began to play much better, so now I will try to score many goals for the people who understood." Angel's assertion that "every hour, every day, I am working to make my game better" is underlined by his manager. "Juan is in most mornings at nine o'clock, in the weight room and the gym, working out, doing extra. He came back early in the summer because he needed to get himself a good pre-season here. He has really gone about his job in a top-class manner because he wants so much to succeed. He has drive and hunger. He is a good pro, a very conscientious boy. He told me he would gladly have traded his goals against Varteks for a win for Villa.

"In training sessions he can be quite superb, always hits the target, takes half-chances. The goals he got on Thursday were half-chances, but they are the kind of things he is good at. Despite last season, Juan is a goalscorer without any question. It's a case of partnering him with the right people, getting him the right kind of service." Gregory admits that not enough was done to help Angel adjust on his arrival. "It wasn't quite the same as moving from Manchester to Birmingham. He came to a different way of life completely and as a football club we didn't appreciate that as much as we should have done. We were a bit ignorant of the fact he needed to be bedded in properly, but we have paid a lot more attention to that in the last few months.

"Juan had an enormous responsibility on his shoulders. The fee is always there in the background. He couldn't read the English newspapers anyway, so he couldn't understand the criticism, but he is not daft, he knew what was expected. Now he's doing OK, there is still a lot more to come from him."

As Angel says: "This season is my real start with Villa. I have prepared well, I am happy, confident. Now I am just thinking about doing what people expect, scoring some goals. We play Southampton on Monday and I am just thinking about scoring against them." In other words, becoming a High-Flying Angel again.

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