Spotlight: Why has the Aston Villa Youth Academy failed for so long?

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Why has the Aston Villa Youth Academy failed for so long? Why does it seem so many of our promising youth players never go on to achieve their full potential; at Villa that is?


Contributed by Joseph Mullane | Edited by Dan Rogers


Having a successful youth academy is something which has been outlined as a priority by our new regime with Christian Purslow stating it as vital towards ensuring Villa become sustainable. How do Villa do this?

Firstly, it’s useful to look at successful examples of other clubs who develop their youth players most effectively. The best examples do tend to be the ones at the top. The likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City and most Premier League teams either have former youngsters in their team or youngsters under 20 around their squad (or on loan).  It must be questioned why Aston Villa have so few.

LOANS

Liverpool have 10 players under 21 out on loan gaining first team experience in addition to having Trent Alexander-Arnold [20] and has already 43 first team appearances and Joe Gomez [21] and has 41 appearances. Manchester United brought through Rashford, Lingard, McTominay who all made their debuts at 18 years of age and are all in and around the first team now. Not to mention all the youngsters they have out on loan under 21 as well, like Tuanzebe.

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This is all the more impressive when they came through under Jose Mourinho’s supervision, a manager notorious for not developing youth players.

Tottenham have Kane, Rose, Winks, Walker-Pieters who came through their youth system and played in the first team at either a young age or got loans spells elsewhere. Arsenal, similarly, have Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, Bellerin as Arsenal youth academy alumni.

You might say these are the top young players from the countries top youth academy’s and so it is expected they would start their careers at a younger age, which is a fair point.  So, for comparison,  let’s look at the academy players at clubs lower down the league.

Everton (mid-table) have Tom Davies, Tyrias Browning [17 on their debuts] and Dominic Calvert-Lewin who was 18 on his debut for Everton.

Southampton have Targett, Gallagher, and Ward-Prowse who all came through their youth system and, again, made their professional debuts at either 17 or 18 years of age.

Crystal Palace? Wan-Bissaka and Zaha were just 18 and 17 respectively on their debuts. These clubs are 15th and 16th in the Premier League as the time of this article being written and have given debuts to many other youth players in their teens whilst in the top flight.

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In The Championship most clubs have been willing to test their teenagers. This was evident even during our December draw against Preston.  Ethan Walker and Adam O’Reilly were 16 and 17 years old when featuring at Deepdale against Villa.

Maybe its just the clubs below us that test their teenagers?  Well, Derby, Middlesbrough and Norwich have all tried teenagers in the championship this season and are all in the top 6.  Further, Leeds have used 5 players 18 and under this campaign and are vying for an automatic promotion place.

The two youngest players to start for Aston Villa in the league this season are Tammy Abraham and Axel Tuanzebe who are both 21 and on loan from other clubs.  Only Jacob Ramsay [17], who made a 30 minute substitute appearance in the defeat to West Brom, has featured for Villa. 

Other clubs who are currently higher than Villa in the table are clearly focused upon providing a gateway from the youth team to the first team and so appears an area where we are falling behind.

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This very issue outlines the key reason that so many of the Villa youth fail to make the grade; they’re just brought in too late. Young players should be getting game-time at the age of 17-18. Villa tend to keep players in the youth team and leave them to stagnate, very occasionally getting one or two substitute appearances.  For some, 17 or 18 might sound far too young, however, many other clubs don’t think seem to agree, as outlined above.  Indeed, the above stands as evidence that this is now the norm. Further, there is a clear correlation between picking players at a young age, which we don’t do, and those same young players going on to have successful careers.

What is worse is that we have actually had pretty successful youth teams with good potential, yet so few have gone on to play for Villa.

There are arguably lots of reasons for this; poor coaching, an unsettled senior squad- or quite simply not having a good enough senior side to help bed these players in, not giving enough experience, whether on loan or at Villa, from a young enough age and lack of patience with youth players in the first team and instead relying on older players for short-term solutions.

We have had successful youth teams in the last 10 years and how many of those promising players have gone on to achieve their potential at Aston Villa?

CAREER LADDER

Through the last 10 years we have had a youth teams filled with the likes of Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Eric Lichaj, Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton, Andreas Weimann, Callum Robinson, Daniel Johnson, Jonathan Hogg, Steven Davis, Enda Stevens and yes… Craig and Gary Gardner.

All of these players were let go by Villa and are now either playing regularly in the Premier League or at the same level that we’re playing. Right now we only have Keinan Davis (who hasn’t played in the league this season), Andre Green who was barely used out on loan at Portsmouth and Jack Grealish in our squad who came through the youth team.

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To think how many of these youngsters could have been given a chance than the dross we have signed for millions and ended up moving on at a massive loss and did nothing for the first team. Think back to when we spent millions on Charles N’Zogbia and giving over £60k a week whilst we also refused to give Marc Albrighton a new contract because he asked for £35k. He then went on to start every game in Leicester’s title winning season.

Who can forget selling Gary Cahill only to then sign Zat Knight? What about bringing in Jean II Makoun whilst simultaneously dropping and subsequently selling Jonathan Hogg, who then went on to get his next two clubs to play off finals and now plays regularly in the Premier League?

Could we also look back on the John Terry deal in a similar vein where we sold a Nathan Baker who was relatively young, came through the youth ranks and did well in his previous championship season, for a player who was only ever going to be a short-term solution? It is hardly inconceivable for Baker to be another who may go on to play regular Premier League football.

What is worse though, is we never seemed to learn lessons.

Even when we have decided to loan a youth player out, it has been to a club with no intention of actually using the player.

As already mentioned this was the case with Andre Green but it was also true for Easah Suliman, yet another player at risk of being released with wasted potential.  Suliman was Captain of England under 16, 17 and 19 sides, the under 19’s who won the youth under 19 world championship where he actually scored the goal in the final, and also won the Premier League Youth Cup with Villa last season.

For a player of only 19 years old he had an impressive resume.  The next step was crucial.  So Villa sent him out on loan to Grimsby, where he was never selected and was simply signed to be a back up rather than having a guaranteed first team opportunity.  All was not lost but time.  Villa had a chance to rectify this, so in the summer (2018) we surely would have learnt from our lessons.  Nope. We send Suliman to FC Emmen where again he rarely featured. Now his contract is up at the end of the season, with any prospect of renewal unclear.

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This was the same with Matija Sarkic’s loan to Wigan where he similarly failed to make a single appearance last season. These were poor loans under Steve Bruce’s tenure. The temptation to say “Well that’s typical Bruce” is strong, I know but this isn’t a Bruce problem, it’s a Villa problem. Go back 10 years to under O’Neill and he also didn’t opt to send players out to get experience , despite having a very promising youth team who got to the Youth Cup Semi Final, before being beaten by Chelsea.

The only individual  given game time under O’Neill was Nathan Delfouneso, who was funnily enough the one with possibly the least potential. This pretty much sums up Villa’s youth policy. Is it more likely that we have just had thousands of Villa youngsters not good enough OR have none of them been developed properly? It can’t be a coincidence that many players go on to perform elsewhere but struggle to break through at Villa Park.

PATIENCE

Youngsters need a patient club, a consistent run of games under a manager who backs them and for those games to come in a settled side with good senior players to guide them or at the very least a club that will arrange for them to get a loan at a club willing to play them.

Villa haven’t had a good settled side for years and when we did, as under O’Neill, no youngsters were never given a run in the team.   Supporters can assume players aren’t good enough despite never actually seeing them play. It’s a philosophy which has run through the club and the fan-base that a youngster can’t be ready to play for Aston Villa and there is a presumption that fans on the whole would rather spend £3 million on an 30+ year old player whose career is behind them [Tommy Elphick?] than give a youngster an opportunity to develop.

A lot of you though will be screaming Grealish’s name.

Well there is always an exception which proves the rule, but let us look at the unique set of events which led to Grealish’s breakthrough. Firstly he went on loan to Notts County at 18 and played regular first team football giving him a good experience slogging out in a relegation battle in League 2. People claim this was it, this is what “made” Grealish into the player he become. No. It was part of his journey but nowhere near the main factor which benefited him. Jack still had to get past a stubborn Paul Lambert.

Over the next 6 months Grealish only started one game, an FA cup tie against Blackpool in a 4th round tie. Things only changed when Lambert was sacked and replaced with Tim Sherwood. This was the turning point for Grealish’s career. 

Through all of Sherwood’s many, many faults there is one thing we can be eternally grateful, the gift of developing Jack Grealish. He persevered with Grealish. Fans criticised this, saying Grealish wasn’t ready and the midfielder struggled initially under Sherwood, but then came the FA Cup Semi-Final against Liverpool.  Emre Can and Martin Skrtel likely still have nightmares of him running towards them.

Grealish ran the show at Wembley in 2015 and people assume this was always going to be the case. It took Grealish a lot of games and confidence from a manager for him to become a starter as well as playing in a side with standout performers like Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph and Ron Vlaar. Without the settled side, and the trust shown by Sherwood, Grealish’s development would have been halted.

Consider this; Grealish is arguably the most exciting talent to come through the youth ranks since Gary Shaw and it still took him till he was 19 before he was given a chance at Villa.

If it took Grealish that long to be played and for that unique set of circumstances for him to flourish, what chance do other youngsters have?

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MONEYBALL

Bringing through youth players brings so many advantages, such as not having to spend as heavily on recruiting players, as mentioned, but also the revenue transfer fees can potentially generate.

Villa have been financially unstable for a long time and youth players can help the club to be sustainable by generating income from loan fees, but even more lucratively, players can be sold for relatively large profits.

Chelsea make considerable income from their youth programme with 40 players currently out on loan (which Villa ironically have profited from this season with Abraham) who can then be either sold, like Patrick Bamford, who was sold for £9 million despite never playing for them.  Then there’s Nathan Ake, he was sold for £20 million despite having barely featured.  The Blues also received an offer of £35 million for Callum Hudson-Odoi [17], despite him having only playing 5 games for the club.

By comparison, Villa have never sold any player for more than £32.5 million; the total transfer fee received for Christian Benteke.

Last summer [2018] it seemed selling Grealish was going to be Villa’s only way of staving off administration, so clearly youth promotion brings a massive financial incentive, and when you consider the transfer market today this policy of ‘developing your own’ seems to have much more importance.

That however raises another issue, have we really got the best value for the players we have managed to move on?

Daniel Johnson went to Preston and been a solid championship player for them with almost 150 appearances. He was sold for a mere £50,000; that’s one week’s worth of Mile Jedinak’s wages.  Callum Robinson, also at Preston, was sold for £500,000 and is now a well regarded championship striker.  Jonathan Hogg, now a regular Premier League midfielder, has reached two play-off finals with two different clubs since being offloaded for £500,000.  All whilst we have spent millions on midfielders who have failed to do exactly that.

Whilst there’s no certainty that these players were good enough for Villa, we didn’t appear to recoup anywhere near their true value.

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The expense of the youth team is excessive as well.

It is extremely expensive running a youth team, especially one which gives very little expenditure back.

Jordan Lyden is 23 and has been on a professional contract for 5 years. He is still on the books despite never playing more than 4 times and making just 10 appearances for Oldham  on loan [2018].  Yes, Lyden has had injuries problems, but maybe he should have been moved on by the club a long time ago to enable him to re-start his career elsewhere?  After-all, this will be the outcome in all probability at the end of the season when his contract ends, finally.

A lot has been made on the Jacob Bedeau deal to Scunthorpe on a free transfer.

Many criticise that Villa spent £1 million on a 17 year old, only for him to be released two years later. But this reflects the new approach at Villa towards youth. By the age of 19 it should be clear whether a youngster has the potential to go on to play for the club.  Bedeau never got a minute for the football club and was never even given the chance to go out on loan, despite Bury offering to do so only for Bruce to reject this deal.  This is an identical situation for Callum O’Hare last season, because it was felt he ‘might’ be used in the first team squad.

Now, two years later having zero minutes in the Aston Villa senior team, Bedeau is given a free transfer to Scunthorpe United. This does seem a change of tact for Villa.  Bedeau is still a teenager.  Maybe it boils down to three things; he asked to be released in order to resurrect his career, Scunthorpe only wanted a permanent deal, or most likely Dean Smith saw no purpose in retaining his services and simply decided to let him go.

“WONDER-KID”

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How many times have we fans got ourselves excited about the supposed next ‘wonder-kid’ coming through?

Whether it be Luke or Stephen Moore, Nathan Delfouneso, Gary Gardner, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and company – only to ultimately be disappointed.  Lately there is much talk about Jacob Ramsey, so hopefully with this new youth policy in place, he and other Villa youth players can be part of a new generation that finally achieve their potential at Aston Villa.

I stand by my long held view that Villa are the worst club in the country for developing their youth players.  Note I didn’t say “have the worst youth players”, because it seems that when it gets to the point where youth players are to be integrated into the first team, we hinder their development. 

Fortunately, however, this seems to now be changing.  Thankfully we have appointed a Head Coach who will work with these youngsters.

Dean Smith will hopefully develop the youth, as shown by him including a number when he originally came in and his record at Brentford for developing academy players.  Smith has presumably decided some are not ready and now many have been sent on loan to gain experience rather than being left to waste away in the under-23s.

This approach has had a beneficial impact on Mitchell Clark who has impressed out on loan with Port Vale, after speaking of his disillusionment of being stuck in the under 23s despite feeling he was ready to play in the first team.

Callum O’Hare (Carlisle United), Harry McKirdy (Newport County), Corey Blackett-Taylor (Walsall), Jake Doyle-Hayes and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy (Cambridge United) are all now going to gain experience in senior first team football.

There is at least a clear strategy now.

Pleasingly, we aren’t just loaning our youngsters to the first club that comes calling.  Callum O’Hare and Jake Doyle-Hayes reportedly had offers from League One clubs, but these deals didn’t guarantee them first team football.  Therefore, Villa instead opted to send them to League Two clubs where they are more likely to get a game.

This is now a distinctively different and positive attitude towards youth development.

Whilst these players aren’t yet deemed good enough to play for Aston Villa, it is the right decision to loan them out to get experience.

When they return, Smith has affirmed his intention to work with all the youngsters in pre-season with a view to preparing them for use in the league next season.

Give the youngsters time with these good, proven coaches who will give them consistent game time.

Play them in a team with solid foundations.

Only then, hopefully, will the next generation of Villa youngsters have the opportunity to live up to their potential and we can finally make the most of our academy.


Contributed by Joseph Mullane | Edited by Dan Rogers


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