Feature: A losing battle – How can Aston Villa hold on to talent?

**…AND to think I first drafted this short piece when I thought Fabian Delph was leaving us the FIRST time.**  


The inclusion of Jack Grealish in the header isn’t in order to be suggestive or a doom mongerer.  Ok, maybe a little.

If Jack does well in the next 12 – 18 months at Villa Park, he will leave.  Having invested in his growth, prayed to the “footballing Gods” he would come good & enjoyed watching him flourish in as Aston Villa side – he will be plucked from us.

This isn’t even necessarily a matter of player loyalty – the Delph story was unprecedented.  Whilst in part Delph left for medals, professional development… blah blah blah – really he was just the cheapest English option for a Man City squad where he might occasionally get a game.

Villa have a wider problem.

How do we build from the academy upwards, whilst retaining our Premier League status & avoid having each rising star leave before we can elevate ourselves as a football club?

A hard set of questions, indeed.

It is made harder because of cataclysmic ownership.  An ownership of initial promise by Randy Lerner that was either badly advised or seriously misled as to how to chase honours & rebuild Aston Villa’s prestige.  This has resulted in desperate years of austerity, steady decline & very nearly our relegation to the lower leagues on more than one occasion.

Yes, I am still talking about Aston Villa still…one time European Champions.  We used to hold broader ambitions than finishing 4th from bottom of the Premier League.  

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Prestige & brand is part of it.  We used to carry ‘weight’, notoriety.  Our decline on the field has in turn steadily diminished our football team to the bargain bin.  We are the Sale rail.  We are the unfashionable team.  Like it or loathe it folks – how many Villa shirts outside of the Midlands do you see worn with pride?  

Whilst I cannot pretend to have knowledge about any potential sale, if I were looking to buy a Premier League club, Villa’s “market appeal” wouldn’t hold huge value in negotiations.  Our history and promise aside, huge damage has been done in terms of how people view our football club.  A PR nightmare created entirely by Lerner’s disinterest in his old toy AVFC.

This all sits in a players mind, no matter how loyal he may be.  If Jack Grealish wakes up after two stunning seasons carrying the Villa in 2017, wonders why he bothers, would you begrudge him a shot at major domestic/European honours elsewhere?  

Realistically, few would – but isn’t it woefully sad it has come to this?  It is also so predictable that this could and will happen, probably on those terms.  It’s also sad that you are probably thinking “well what can we do about it”?  I know it’s true because I think it.  And it’s pathetic.

Yes, the dynamic of the modern game has changed.  

We are no longer on a level playing field – but should that mean we surrender just surrender to the inevitable?  Why should we just act as as a nursery for our competitors & rivals until their crop has matured?

Going back to Delph; did he really grow up wanting to play for Manchester City?  Of course not, but a big pile of money & the chance to win things ultimately dictated the outcome.

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Villa fans across the ages can of course reminisce about Aston Villa, the selling club.

Yorke, Milner, Barry, Delph… Benteke.  There’s a discussion to be had about the loss of players like Southgate, Ehiogu & Boateng to VillaBora.   That’s just the modern era to reflect upon.

We desperately need to change our thinking, perhaps completely as a football club, than as fans.  Fans will always be unrealistic, impatient & write blogs like this.

Villa experienced the bite of paying out on multiple extortionate wages and have since flatly refused to do it.  Until desperate (Bent…Given…).  We seem to lurch to and from extremes, purely reacting in the moment.  With better, more methodical planning, anyone can achieve progress and retain talent.  

Arsenal, perversely given the stick that Wenger receives, are a good example of a model worth replicating, especially in the position where we find ourselves today.

It may seem a strange desire to want to follow the path that Wenger has plotted, but bear with me.  Whilst Arsenal haven’t hit the heights nearly as often as they would like, they are consistently at the right end of the table, always trying to improve &  looking to add to their squad on quality rather than impulse.

After the invincible years Wenger flatly refused to change his previous model of gentle tinkering.  This resulted in their losing players like Nasri, Clichy to Man City – no different to the problem Villa have.  Wenger took the view of buying in top European talent, developing youth and now adding to this by complimenting it by buying in proven pros to his side.  The saving made on the former, funds the latter (*yes Arsenal have an efficient revenue from The Emirates as well).  

This blend, methodical, measured approach, whilst not yeilding a Premier League title in recent years, has made Arsenal a mainstay at the top end of the table.

We would could lift this model & even if we achieved a 50% improvement it would lift us away from the trapdoor and provide a platform which would give rise to professionals seeing their future at our club.  That is the crux: we need to give players a reason to stay, professionally.

Villa, in huge contrast to Arsenal have for many years lurched.  Be it rampant spending without thought, years of austerity, attempts to develop youth quickly under Lambert, to what now appears to be an attempt to hoover up promise across Europe.  

None of these efforts feel like long term plans, but rather those types of aim which place a lot of hope of an “upturn”; largely in the moment.

Lambert inherited a car crash squad & austerity – he also needed every youngster he bought to the club to improve us immediately.  Sherwood is reliant upon the carcass of 3+ squads and young European talent coming good, immediately.  Whilst the difference between PL & TS are clearly huge, the challenge they face with the plan in place seems awfully familiar.

Only through thoughtful “building” will we see progress.  It might not come in five years for Villa, it could easily take ten.  We need to pay our youth players comparably to top sides, give them no reason to move to other set-ups and fiercely promote our club, our brand into something worthwhile.

We must also buy in quality for the academy players who make the step up to learn from.  Quality will not only improve them, but also the football club.  We need to be brave and look once again at acquiring a marquee signing each season.  Not in the sense of just getting a “name”, but adding proven quality to the team that betters us and makes a statement to the pros at the club that we have ambition.  

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We can lie awake and dream of buying these players, or we can try and get them.  Do we try to get them?  I don’t think we do anymore & that’s the problem.  Our expectation in transfer windows is precisely zero.  I don’t want to see the club bankrupted or held to ransom, but we were not founded on the principle of not trying.  

Villa are dreaming of winning the lottery without even buying a ticket.

We must give our rising talent no reason to believe that Aston Villa isn’t their future.  When we can play them, we should.  When we can add quality around them we shouldn’t fear it will stop them breaking through.  The cream will rise.  I’m a firm believer that the biggest disappointment at Villa has not only been how few players we see make it – but quite how few look remotely capable of making that step up at all.  Is the talent already elsewhere?

Finally, we must give them the belief that they can win things for Aston Villa.  We do this by supporting them, financially, technically & by putting quality footballers around them.  The academy should be the future of our football club – our efforts should be focused on making the players within it the best in whatever way possible.  But it will all be in vain, if nobody wants to be here or doesn’t believe that Aston Villa is their future.