Why £24m Darren Bent is anything but a 'panic buy' for Gerard Houllier

London's newly renovated Savoy Hotel, Sunday night.

And Gerard Houllier is acting like a dog that's discovered an extra appendage.

At the time, as the Frenchman bounced round the room before paying an impromptu personal tribute to Football Writers' Association guest of honour Thierry Henry, it seemed more like relief after the way his players had responded to adversity to claim a deserved draw in the second city derby at St Andrew's.

Now, of course, it all becomes a great deal clearer.

Houllier knew what was in the pipeline, knew that Darren Bent was ready to quit Sunderland and join him at Aston Villa.

And while some have criticised the Villa boss for paying up to £24million in a "panic buy", landing Bent is anything but that.

Villa needs goals. Lots of them. And Bent is a proven scorer.

Even at Spurs, where he was haunted by Harry Redknapp's disparaging claim that "my missus" could have scored a free header he put wide against Portsmouth, Bent's record was not as bad as it was painted.

Yes, he did have a tendency to run offside and did not seem to gel with Robbie Keane, who was club skipper at the time.

But he still scored 25 goals in two seasons, despite feeling weighed down by the £16.5million price-tag; still showed signs that there was more to come.

And, without question, Bent has proven that on Wearside.

You do not score 32 goals in 58 Premier League games without having something about you.

Bent has pace, directness, the ability to find himself in the right position at the right time and, most importantly of all, the talent to tuck the chances away.

He misses some. Of course he does. So did the true greats.

And while Bent will never be in that category, he is a proven Premier League marksman, a rare and vital commodity to have.

From my standpoint, the true proof of his development came in Basel in September.

Bent was one of those who missed out at the final cut for World Cup selection, after being, to be honest, absolutely hopeless in the last warm-up game against Japan in Graz - not that he would have stood out in that respect given what happened in South Africa.

But when he came on against Switzerland and was presented with a chance a couple of minutes from time to put the match away, something had changed.

It was not just that Bent swept the ball into the net with no fuss whatsoever. More key, for me, was the muted nature of the celebration.

For some players, a first England goal, no matter what the circumstances, would see wild joy and exhilaration. Bent, by contrast, simply turned away, with a smile on his face and two outstretched fingers pointing at his team-mates as they rushed to embrace him.

It looked like a man who realised he had done what he was supposed to do, almost as if it was not an achievement at all. It was, in short, the reaction of a man who expects to score.

Bent changed as a player, perhaps as a man, too, that night and you got the sense that it would all come that little bit easier for the years to come.

Of course there has been plenty of comment about the size of the fee, believed to be around £18m but rising to £24m.

Martin O'Neill will be forgiven his own wistful smile at that figure but while there is a risk, as there is with any big-money capture, the upside makes it worthwhile.

Houllier, with reason, believes Bent will score the goals that will keep Villa in the Premier League.

If he is right, and it doesn't seem a bad viewpoint by any standard, then it guarantees the club around £70m income from the league alone - based on television fees and the two-year parachute payment for clubs that go down - over the next three years, even if they are relegated next season.

Staying up, too, will allow Houllier time to do the job he has persuaded Randy Lerner is required, overhauling the squad he inherited and bringing through the youngsters in the club's ranks.

Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannon, Ciaran Clark, Jonathan Hogg, Eric Lichaj, Fabian Delph, Chris Herd and Nathan Delfouneso have all had run-outs under Houllier but it is far harder for young players to mature into the talents they can be if they are thrown head-first into a struggling team facing a relegation fight.

The goals Bent will surely bring will start to relieve that pressure, allowing the younger players to develop and be much more ready by the time next August comes round.

Bent's arrival may see movement in the other direction.

John Carew fell out with Houllier at Lyon, so his departure would be no surprise and it seems reasonable to surmise that either Stewart Downing or Ashley Young may go in the next fortnight to help balance the books.

But signing a goalscorer will make all the difference in the world to the Villa squad.

Houllier knows that. It explains why he was in such a good mood on Sunday night.

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williamhill.com

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