‘Five of the 14 players that made up the squad that lifted the title in 1981 were younger than Jack Grealish is now.’
Young Man’s Game
How long do you give a young player to prove he’s the real deal?
Opportunities at senior level are normally few and far between for youth team players.
Increasingly with the event of social media, the pressure from football fans for new ready-made signings doesn’t help. You then have to consider, if a team like Aston Villa haven’t performed in recent years, while a younger player may get more chances, playing in a sub-par team can be counter-productive to a player’s confidence and development.
It’s a tough equation.
The latest bright hope to break through the Villa ranks has been Keinan Davis.
Despite Villa forking out in the last year on three strikers to the tune of £10m+ each, the 19-year-old is proving his worth and deservedly claimed a place in Steve Bruce’s first XI; while Ross McCormack has been loaned out and Scott Hogan sits on the bench.
Davis undoubtedly proves the old adage, that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
Meanwhile, Jack Grealish, considered for several years now as the great Villa hope, is now 22 and Villa fans are still waiting to see if he is the finished article.
How long does a player remain a ‘young hopeful’?
Villa’s last prodigal son, Gary Gardner, turned 25 before Villa finally gave up the ghost and loaned him out for perhaps the last time before he moves on.
Steve Bruce spoke of his first XI of the past four games being a good mix of experience and youth. With an average age of 28.27, the reality is the team is certainly on the maturer side.
With Andre Green (19) and Grealish currently injured, the current first XI’s youngest player after Davis is Sam Johnstone, aged 24.
Currently, the team’s age doesn’t matter too much, it’s a team for the short-term aim of promotion back to the Premier League.
If that aim is achieved, then Villa will look more to the long-term building of a more sustainable and youthful team to provide the vigour that seasoned pros with fat bank accounts sometimes lose in the modern game.
Young and Hungry
Go back to the 2013/14 season and there was a bit of a song and dance about Villa’s ‘young and hungry’ policy under Paul Lambert. In one game, he fielded a team with a Premier League average age low that season of 24.7-years-old.
With Randy Lerner tightening the purse strings, the youthful age of the Villa team was mentioned more as an excuse to dampen expectations for Villa supporters.
What it needed was the blending in of a couple more key players in their prime and perhaps an additional old wise head.
If you want the best working example of this, look no further than Aston Villa’s finest ever team.
The Champion’s Blend
It’s often forgotten just how young Villa’s League winners of the 1980/1, who won the European Cup the following season, actually were.
When the start of the 1980/1 season kicked-off, Gary Shaw was a mere 19-years-old, full-backs Gary Williams and Colin Gibson were both 20-years-old, and the cultured midfield maestro Gordan Cowans was only 22-years-old.
Squad members David Geddis (22) and the late Eamonn Deacy (21), also brought a youthful glow to the set up.
An astounding statistic is five of the 14 players that made up the squad that lifted the title in 1981 were younger than Jack Grealish is now, and Cowans was only a few months older than him too.
The rock solid central defensive partnership of McNaught (25) and Evans (24) were also a few years shy of what is considered the peak of a centre-back’s powers.
When it came to the wiser and older heads, Villa’s midfield pair of Mortimer and Bremner were both still under 30 and probably at their peaks at 28-years-old, the same age as full-back Kenny Swain.
Jimmy Rimmer (32) and Peter Withe (30), were the only members of the 30’s club.
At 24.6 years-old, the average age of the 14 players that won Aston Villa the league title in 1980/81 was even less than Paul Lambert’s youthful chargers.
Ex-Liverpool player Alan Hansen famously claimed that “You can’t win anything with kids”, when Villa beat Manchester United 3-1 on the opening day of the 1995/96 season.
Despite United winning the league that season, Hansen technically wasn’t wrong.
The average age of the United squad during that season – of those who made more than 10 appearances – was 26 years and 137 days.
However, it was Villa, 15 seasons earlier, that had actually already proved him wrong.
The Ages of the League Champions of 1980/81
Jimmy Rimmer, age 32
Gary Williams, age 20
Colin Gibson, age 20
Ken McNaught, age 25
Allan Evans, age 24
Kenny Swain, age 28
Eamonn Deacy, age 21
Dennis Mortimer, age 28
Des Bremner, age 28
Tony Morley, age 26
Gordon Cowans, age 22
Peter Withe, age 30
Gary Shaw, age 19
David Geddis, age 22
Average Age – 24.6 years old
(An earlier version of this article appeared on MOMS in 2013.)