“If you don’t bring kids through the academy, the best thing is to close the academy.” – Jose Mourinho, 2014.
Brummies, Not Scousers
It could be argued that if you closed the Aston Villa academy down tomorrow, in terms of its impact on Villa’s first team teamsheet in seasons to come, nobody would really miss it.
Currently, the Villa academy is something Villa supporters have a mix of wishful thinking and ‘home grown’ sentimentality about. Bar perhaps Andre Green’s recent emergence and Jack Grealish’s flirtations with the first team, it’s fair to ask whether the academy is now underperforming? Especially, when you consider Villa being linked to two Liverpool prospects recently, Sheyi Ojo and Ryan Kent, both 20-years-old and looking for first team football to develop further.
Villa’s name may have been thrown into the mix of suitors for the Liverpool pair simply as a result of lazy journalism or clickbait, but if Bruce was serious about either of these young forward players, what does that say for the likes of ,Keinan Davis, Jack Grealish, or Rushian Hepburn-Murphy?
Shouldn’t the club be giving them a chance first?
But beyond the obligatory hype, are Villa’s home grown good enough? Or, is it simply a case of them not being given a proper chance?
Speaking of which, there was a certain amount of irony to the fact that former Villa academy product Gary Cahill, this week was announced as John Terry’s replacement as the captain of the English League Champions, Chelsea.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing in terms of Cahill, but it is fairly symbolic of Villa not having faith in their own.
“If you don’t bring kids through the academy, the best thing is to close the academy,” said Jose Mourinho, during his last spell as Chelsea manager. “If the kids are not good enough or the work not good enough and you don’t bring kids up, then close the door and use the money to buy players.
“You need to prove the academy works well and is worth it.”
You only have to go back to the 2012-13 season and Villa were effectively crowned the Champions of Europe at youth level. But looking at that team, only Jack Grealish, Kevin Toner and Jordan Lyden are currently at the club making any impression on the Villa first team squad.
Obviously the transition from youth player to the 1st team is not clean cut and very few players ultimately make it. Callum Robinson is probably the best placed of the rest of the players from the Next Gen team, with him currently playing for Preston North End, while the rest are to be found in lower English leagues or in Scotland and Ireland.
Yet, a few years ago, Villa’s academy was regarded as one of the best in Europe for producing players that did make it into the top leagues in Europe.
An easy example would be to cast your mind back to when Paul Lambert’s Villa took Liverpool apart at Anfield 3-1. There was six Aston Villa youth academy graduates starting (Herd, Bannan, Weimann, Clark, Baker, and Lichaj), with another (Albrighton) on the bench.
Since then, the academy has been on a bit of a slide. First of all, it hasn’t been helped by UEFA freezing out the Next Gen (and Aston Villa) with its own youth Champions League (with only teams whose first teams made the senior tournament, invited), but mainly the problems have been due to the frequent turnover of Villa managers.
Such regular overhaul at the top, doesn’t help provide a consistent strategy in terms of harvesting the academy to the first team. Manchester United’s much celebrated ‘Class of 92’ was largely down to Sir Alex Ferguson’s settle position as United boss.
An academy only really works if a team’s manager has a long reign and is invested in it. At Villa, it is hoped that Technical Director Steve Round is part of the solution in terms of providing a continuity whoever the manager is.
While the Under-18’s have recovered well, by winning their league last season, the last bridge to the first team, the Under-23’s, finished mid-table in the second tier of the English Premier League U-23’s.
Considering the cost of running an academy, through all age groups and the slim pickings it’s produced more recently, is it becoming simply idealistic fool’s gold?
Perhaps not, if it’s given more of a focus and integrated closer to the first team.
Take for example, Spurs.
Premier League Experiment
In the Premier League more than £850m has been spent by top-flight sides in the transfer window, which still has a month to run. This amount includes almost £100m spent on two full-backs by Manchester City, which is a head-spinning amount. It many respects, it’s a sickening figure, but we won’t go there here.
In the face of this splurge, Spurs have shown that a club’s academy can still play a pivotal roll in feeding a team’s first XI. Of course, they have cut back on player spending due to privately financing a new £750m stadium, but still they have a coach in Mauricio Pochettino who is willing to encourage academy products, which has been part of the Spurs philosophy in recent years that has seen them blossom as a force.
It was interesting to read Gary Neville’s thoughts in an article in the Daily Telegraph a few years ago, on how United fused his generation of academy hopefuls into the first team experience as much as possible. Plus, his thoughts on the academies of the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea being unable to produce their own first-team players.
Relating back to Villa, the last few seasons have seen the club overspending on players that have brought little return. Surely academy players could have matched the disappointing efforts of Aaron Tshibola, Carlos Sanchez, Jordan Veretout, Tommy Elphick and Ross McCormack? It’s not much of a stretch and they would have saved the club millions in transfer fees and wages.
A purposeful Villa side with four or five home-grown products, supplemented by dedicated experienced players, would be the ideal make-up of a team for supporters to get excited about and back in the pursuit of promotion.
Instead, Bruce has been forced into the short-termism of buying a bunch of players well into their 30’s, due to the club’s previous poor transfer windows and reluctant academy grooming.
It was encouraging to see Villa owner Tony Xia publicly recognise the need to fuse the academy more into the first team picture, via a recent tweet.
One thing we and SB made the agreement is to trim the squad to 19-20 and pick 5-6 youngsters to train with the 1st squad this season. https://t.co/D41oy9ywjH
— Dr. Tony Xia (@Dr_TonyXia) July 21, 2017
This is a clear realisation internally at the club of the issue and that the academy would perhaps pay more dividends, if it was given more of a chance to.
As Neville says, in the aforementioned article, as well as simply building an academy factory, you have to build a ‘culture linking the youngest lad at the club to the most senior veteran’.
It’s seems that internally, Villa are aware of the issue and see that perhaps it would pay dividends growing such a culture.
Looking ahead in Villa’s future, if success returns to the club, then Xia’s plans will be hatched, such as the rebuilding of the North Stand, and it will be important for Villa, like Spurs, to adopt a more sensible sustainable approach to squad building.
There’s much work to be done yet, but Villa have good recent pedigree with their youth academy, which needs to be refocused.
As well as the savvy short-term measures we’ve made in this summer’s transfer window in terms of more experienced players, the next step is a concentrated effort in the nurturing of the club’s long-term future – it’s youth.