When Manchester United lost to Aston Villa at the start of the 1995-96 season, Alan Hansen made the unforgettable “you’ll never win anything with kids” remark. So it was quite ironical that Aston Villa’s own ‘young, gifted and British’ brigade chose a game against United to announce their arrival to the world. In November 2010, an injury-plagued Aston Villa fielded a squad that included academy graduates such as Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton to take on the team that eventually won the league at the end of the season. In a scintillating second half, The Villains comprehensively outplayed United, scoring two wonderful goals and hitting the woodwork twice, before their inexperience and United’s legendary resilience caught up with them. After the match, they received praise from all quarters and even Sir Alex admitted that “All the young players with their enery made it a difficult day for us. We could have conceded six”.
Forced by injuries
As Aston Villa battled with injury problems in the middle of the season, Gerard Houllier was forced to give the youngsters a chance. Apart from the game against United, they put in impressive performances against West Brom, Fulham, Blackpool and Chelsea and the likes of Albrighton, Clarke, Bannan and Delfouneso began to play increasingly prominent roles as the season progressed. Villa, however, had a disappointing season, as they found themselves battling relegation, before eventually finishing 9th in the table. They had ended the previous three campaigns at 6th position. Having lost Downing and Young, arguably their two best players, along with other experienced players such as Friedel, Carew and Reo-Coker, it is time for the youngsters to step up and stake their claim.
Albrighton, Clark, and Bannan – Most promising of the lot
Marc Albrighton, according to many, was the bright light in a rather disappointing season. He was given his chance by care-taker manager Kevin MacDonald and Albrighton quickly established himself as the most promising youth product coming out of Villa’s academy in recent times. The right midfielder who scored 5 goals from 20 starts in his debut season is a more traditional winger than Young. Instead of cutting inside, he tends to stick to the touchline and uses his pace to beat the defender. He is also a fantastic crosser and will be looking to provide more assists than the four he provided last season.
Ciaran Clark, who joined Villa’s youth academy at 11, is naturally a central defender, but has been deployed as a left-back and in central midfield. However, he has never looked out of position. Not only is he quick and a good tackler, he has shown a great range of passing too when deployed in midfield. After captaining England at U-18 and U-19 levels, he announced his decision to play for Republic of Ireland last year. He has shown great leadership qualities, and “will be one of the best defenders in the Premier League and in Europe too” according to teammate Carlos Cuellar.
Barry Bannan announced his arrival on the Villa scene with a goal against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. The Scot is certainly the most creative of all the midfielders currently at the club. The playmaker was praised for his vision and skill by Houllier and has the ability to find defense-splitting passes. After gaining experience from loan spells at Derby, Blackpool and Leeds, Bannan looks set for a full season at Villa; however, with McLeash choosing to play two defensive central midfielders, it will be interesting to see where and how often he features this season.
Delfouneso, Baker, and Lichaj – Next in line
Delfouneso became the youngest player to represent Aston Villa in a European competition in 2008 and has been on the brink of first team football ever since. However, having displayed great speed and finishing in certain games, he has also shown his inexperience in games such as the one against Fulham last season, wherein he wasted a number of chances. Having already opened his account for the season with a goal in the Carling Cup, he will be looking for more matches this season but with Bent, Agbonlahor and Heskey at the club, he might have to wait a little longer, before he becomes a permanent name on the team sheet.
Nathan Baker has been used when Clark is unavailable and the central defender may be called upon more often this season. Eric Lichaj is another defender who is considered to be a promising prospect coming from the academy but may only feature in Carling Cup matches this season.
Successful youth setup
While Villa have always had a good youth system which has produced the likes of Gary Cahill, Craig Gardner and other Premier League players, the emergence of several players from the academy was a part of a conscious effort from former manager Martin O’Neill, who despite spending a net of 84 million pounds in his four year tenure realized that the only way to ensure Villa’s continued success was to invest in youth. Pivotal in giving these youngsters a break was care-taker manager Kevin MacDonald who has overseen the progression of these players through the academy.
The success of the youth academy has not stopped after O’Neill’s departure. Last season, Aston Villa’s academy won their Barclays Premier Academy League group and reached the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup. Six of the academy’s U-18 players have signed professional contracts with the club for the coming season.
The big question – Will they play?
How these youngsters fit into McLeish’s system is yet to be seen. In the pre-season friendlies as well as the first two games in the league, the manager used a systeam similar to the 4-2-3-1, with two wingers high up the pitch, two defensive central midfielders and one striker playing much deeper than the other. While Albrighton is a certainty for a spot on the right wing, it will be interesting to see if Bannan is used in a defensive role, wide on the left or in the hole as none of those roles are natural to him. Clark’s versatility will continue to be exploited as Luke Young, Collins, Dunne and Warnock will be the first choice back-four. Delfouneso seemed keen to go out on loan last season before he got matches under his belt, but may find a place in the starting 11 hard to come as Bent, Agbonlahor and Heskey are ahead of him in the pecking order.
When Robert Pires joined Villa in January last year, he claimed that the youngsters here were as good as those at Arsenal. How similar the youngsters are in terms of talent remains to be seen; however, one key difference is that almost all of Villa’s young prodigies are British. Alex McLeish has already said that he intends to give the youngsters a chance and has already backed it up by preferring Delph over Makoun. Regardless of how much success they earn this season, Villa’s academy has produced a fine generation of youngsters who will play a significant part in their club’s success in the years to come.