Sunday, 13 October 2013

News piece: Aston Villa's renewed hope lies in it's youth

Villa Academy skipper Samir Carruthers lifts the Next Gen Trophy in Italy on the first of April 2013. Graham Burke's brace gave the West Midlands side a 2-0 win against Chelsea in an all-English final. (Photo Courtesy
Last season was not one Aston Villa fans would fondly remember. New manager Paul Lambert would look back on a season which saw his team exit the League Cup at the receiving end of a giant-killing from League Two side Bradford City and that ignominy only added to a season where Villa just about managed to avoid relegation to the Football Championship. 

But while the rest of the footballing world will look at last year as a failure, to those at Villa Park, it represents the resilience shown by Lambert for his steadfast belief in youth. The Birmingham side's flirtations with relegation may have caused heartache to many a Villa fan last season, but the club's plan is one of enduring short-term pain to oversee long-term gain.

Villa's excellent start to their new Barclays Premier League campaign has led to a new sense of optimism amongst club fans. 

78% of people who voted on fansite Villa Talk think that their team will finish mid table this season, while roughly 15% of fans think that the Midlands club could challenge for a place in Europe. What is heartening to see, however, is that not one fan thinks Villa are in for the drop come May.

Although it is still very early days, a whopping 95% of fans on the same site believe that there is cause for optimism this season. It is a belief reinforced by Paul Lambert, who wrote an impassioned letter to the fans of the club, thanking them for their support this season.

In an article in the Express and Star, the contents of Scotsman Lambert's letter were revealed:

“Inevitably, we experienced growing pains last season," he wrote. "But over the second half of the campaign there was a big coming together and a massive effort to secure the results which gave us that platform to continue to build."

“We’re a different team from that now. Everyone can sense this and see it, too, and some of our results so far have provided a real measure of just how far we have travelled in not much more than a year."

Despite losses to Newcastle, Chelsea and Liverpool, Villa fans who are no doubt eager for the domestic season to resume next weekend can look through highlights of memorable wins against Arsenal and Manchester City. Having played both Chelsea and Liverpool already, Villa now have a relatively easy set of fixtures to build on.

Key to their successes this season will be Belgium striker Christian Benteke, who was forced off against Norwich City with a groin complaint. The 22-year-old scored 28 goals for club and country, 21 of which were for Villa. 19 of these came in the Premier League and ensure Villa's survival last season as they finished 15th.

Despite facing a six-week injury spell on the sidelines, however, Benteke was called up by Belgium coach Marc Wilmots for his country's World Cup qualifiers. The Diables Rouges qualified for their first World Cup since 2002 on the 11th of October and Wilmots says that Benteke will be ready for Belgium's second game, which is against Wales. 

FIFA rulings state that Lambert has to let the Congo-born forward go, but he is none too happy about the decision.

But through the trials of last season was born a togetherness and team spirit that has seemed to reap dividends this time around. Villa skipper Ron Vlaar has extended his support to new signing Jores Okore, who suffered an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury just five games into his Villa career.

Netherlands centre-back Vlaar spent nearly two years on the sidelines and was doing his best to encourage his new Denmark international team mate.

Their fellow centre-back Ciaran Clark was also optimistic of Villa's season, adding that teams now feared facing the Villans.

"Maybe teams are looking at us now and knowing when they come up against us it's going to be a tough game," said the Republic of Ireland international. "We have had a tough start in the league. The games against Chelsea and Liverpool, we could have got points as well."

Villa centre-back Ciaran Clark and midfielder Fabian Delph were both included in's Team of the Week before the international break began.
Versatile defender Clark was one of two Villa players to be included in's Team of the Week for 5th and 6th October 2013: perhaps one of the clearest indications of the rising stock of players at Villa Park. The other was midfielder Fabian Delph.

And for those who say that the taste of the pudding is only in its eating, they need look no further than Aston Villa's triumph in last season's UEFA NextGen competition, newly launched to give youngsters the experience of playing in Europe.

Beating more fancied opposition such as PSV Eindhoven and Ajax from the Netherlands, Portugal's Sporting Lisbon, Greek outfit Olympiakos Piraeus and Celtic FC from Scotland, Villa's Academy prospects triumphed 2-0 over Chelsea at the Stadium Giuseppe Singaglia on the shores of Lake Como in Italy.

Villa's Irish forward Graham Burke scored on that night, but that was a team studded with starlets who could one day become mainstays at the Birmingham club. These include Academy skipper Samir Carruthers, Jack Grealish, Josh Barton, Gary Gardner, Calum Barrett, Daniel Johnson and Michael Drennan.  

The NextGen series will go a long way in quickening the pace at which these players develop, as Villa's Academy manager Brian Jones has said:

"In terms of the quality of opposition, this has certainly been the best competition that Aston Villa's youngsters have been involved with during my time at the club. It has given everyone a lift. The players, the coaching staff and Aston Villa as whole."

Like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, whose youth policy Villa seem to be emulating, Lambert prefers a hands-on approach to the development of his players. He was recently at a reserve game overseeing the return of Burke, who'd just come back from a loan spell at Shrewsbury, just as he was in Italy overseeing his young charges triumph.

It has always been the Lambert way of doing things, says former Villa frontman Dion Dublin, who gives the boss his vote of confidence:

"He looks to give young players a chance. If he finds a player of an older age and quality, he’ll play them – but he does like to give young British talent a chance," says the striker. “That’s why he did so well at Norwich and other clubs he’s been at. He does believe in the quality of the youth of today. He’ll back it – and look at the way they’ve started. That’s why he is the man for Villa.”

A section of Villa fans believe that their club's future stars are benefiting from loan spells at other clubs and this can only be a win-win situation for both parties. But whether those players will remain at Villa is not yet known. 

With the amount of talent being blooded through the system, there will always be bigger clubs looking to gazump Villa's long-term plans for one of their starlets. Goalkeeper Bradley Guzan has been in impressive form this season, but he has already received interest from Arsenal. Benteke was another player who seemed to be on his way out this summer, but despite interest from Tottenham Hotspur, he decided to stay at Villa Park.

What is important therefore is that Villa keep their players. Only then can they one day reach the same status as the clubs that are now sniffing around their best and brightest prospects.

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