Darren Bent again demonstrated why Gérard Houllier lavished as much as £24m to bring him to Aston Villa, before revealing that the stricken manager contacted him from his hospital bed to urge him to excel against Stoke City.
The time was 12.45, shortly before acting manager Gary McAllister conducted the team meeting. Bent, checking his text messages, found one from Houllier telling him to "keep going". While he was touched by the gesture, and later dedicated his seventh goal in 12 Villa appearances to him, the England player viewed it as symptomatic of a character possibly too consumed by football for his well-being.
"He won't let it go and that's just him," Bent said. "He's passionate about his football. But hopefully he realises there are times when your health comes first. It was shock to hear he was ill because I saw him the day before [Houllier was admitted to hospital complaining of chest pains] and he looked fine.
"A lot of the lads were down when they heard what had happened to him. For me, being his signing, it was extra important to play for him and try to get a result. He took a gamble paying big money for me when the club were near the relegation zone. I'm hoping he'll be back before long. With his determination, I'm sure he'll want to get back."
Bent has targeted a top-eight finish for Villa this season and hopes his goals will enhance his international opportunities. "I can't score many more than I did last season [25 for Sunderland], and it still wasn't good enough for England. All I can do is keep working and improving, and hopefully [Fabio] Capello will keep picking me."
McAllister, whose faith in his own ability has survived a bruising sacking by Ken Bates at Leeds, is confident Houllier will resume active service.
"I know what type of man he is. He spent time with the French Federation, pushing a pen around a desk, so I know what he loves and where he wants to be. And that's on a training ground every day, with the players."
Brad Friedel thwarted Stoke before Kenwyne Jones' aerial power put them ahead. Bent's glancing header gave Villa fresh impetus, yet Rory Delap, again a goal-maker from a throw-in, explained that the FA Cup finalists were never likely to soft-pedal towards Wembley with Tony Pulis in charge.
"If you ease up and start thinking about the final, you're not going to be playing in it," Delap said. "The manager has shown in the past that anyone who messes about, and doesn't put the work in, will be out of the team and probably out of the club."
Scorers: Aston Villa Bent 43. Stoke Jones 20. Substitutes: Aston Villa Albrighton 5 (Downing, 67), Agbonlahor (Heskey, 79). Stoke Whitehead (Etherington, 73), Fuller (Delap, 75), Diao (Jones, 88).
Booked: Stoke City Whelan, Wilson, Begovic.
Man of the match Friedel. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Aston Villa 50% Stoke City 50%.
Attempts on target: Aston Villa 2 Stoke City 3.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside).
Attendance 35,232.Reuse content