Shortly after Inter Milan’s victory in the inaugural Next Generation under-19 tournament, President Massimo Morrati oversaw an overhaul of the first team Inter squad in the hope of building on the success of Inter’s under-19 team. The youth strategy back-fired for Inter however as they failed to qualify for the Champions League and coach Andrea Stramaccioni was sacked.
This season’s Next Generation winners, Aston Villa, will be hoping to build on the development of their own young players, who learnt important lessons during last season’s white knuckle Premier League campaign. Frustratingly, the number of Villa academy players who have made their debut under Paul Lambert has been negligible. Derrick Williams was handed a promising debut against QPR last winter, but did not make the first team again and has now joined Bristol City.
Baker, Clark, Bannan, Weimann, Delph, Agbonlanhor, and Lichaj had all featured under previous managers with varying levels of success and whilst some of these players improved under Lambert, others have failed to live up to their earlier promise. Paul Lambert can take credit however for the development of Weimann, Baker and Delph, who have all steadily improved as the season progressed.
In Lambert’s defence, blooding youngsters from the academy was a luxury he could ill afford when his team was sinking in the relegation zone as every match was vital. Liverpool, for example, were able to award debuts to no less than seven youngsters including Samed Yesil, Suso and Jordon Ibe, and it is hoped therefore that Lambert will introduce some of Villa’s Next Gen Series winners to the first team squad next year.
Two young hot shots from Villa’s Next Gen Series winning team who will be hoping to impress Lambert are Michael Drennan and Callum Robinson.
19-year-old Irish youngster Michael Drennan scored six goals in the Next Gen Series campaign despite missing the trip to Italy through a foot injury which ruled him out of the semi final and the final itself. Next Gen fans will recall that Chelsea youngster Islam Feruz also finished the competition with six goals, although Feruz’s goal tally was somewhat unsurprising for a player who had been purchased for Chelsea’s expensively assembled young side from Celtic for over a million pounds.
In sharp contrast, Drennan arrived at Villa as a hopeful scholarship apprentice and had to earn his recognition through clinical performances in this year’s competition rather through a glittering price tag. There is a Argentine saying ‘contigo pan y cebolla‘ which means ‘with you bread and onions‘ and Drennan’s hard work as an apprentice perhaps shows that there are some things more important than money in football such as a hunger to succeed.
It’s hard to imagine Tony McAndrew and Gordon Cowans working with players such as Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who earns a basic salary comparable to a Premier League first team player, despite never featuring for Chelsea’s first team. Indeed, Paul Lambert’s regime has a quite different ethos to Roman Abramovich, as Lambert has been keen to introduce an incentive-based wage structure which doesn’t reward young players too early and makes them hungry to develop. Rather like Crewe, who pay their young players a £800 basic wage a week, the academy at Bodymoor Heath has been focused on developing players rather than amassing an expensive squad of starlets from across Europe and beyond.
Kilkenny’s Drennan was a comparatively recent addition to Bodymoor Heath compared to some of the other boys like Graham and Grealish, who joined the club when they were infants.
Steely-eyed Drennan possesses an ice cool ruthlessness in front of goal which allows him to score goals, and lots of them. There is nothing particularly fussy or over elaborate in Drennan’s game. He makes runs into space, collects the ball and has a shot. Football is a simple game. Drennan doesn’t over complicate things.
The Irish youngster was featured by the Next Gen Series organisers in an interview this year, when he became the competition’s leading scorer and he spoke calmly about his success. Drennan appeared humble and willing to deflect praise on to his fellow team mates even though the statistics showed that he has made an encouraging impression at the club since arriving in 2011. The young striker had in fact scored six times in 11 games for the under-21s last season including a remarkable hat-trick against Sunderland. Added to his Next Gen Series tally, Drennan scored 12 goals in 14 games for Villa last season before suffering his frustrating foot injury.
One of Drennan’s team mates who he would no doubt be seeking to deflect praise on to is England’s Callum Robinson.
18-year-old Robinson was, in many fans opinion, the boy of the match in the Next Gen Series final. The elusive young forward was a constant irritant for Chelsea’s defence as he pulled Chelsea’s defenders out of position, dribbled towards them and emerged in between the lines.
Live wire Robinson arguably has a playing style similar to Italy’s Emanuele Giaccherini as he drifts out wide, pops up as a second striker and is a jack-in-the-box type of forward with good technical ability. Wherever Robinson plays he is always eager to receive the ball and has a lot of confidence to take defenders on, strike on goal or create opportunities for others such as his assist for Grealish in the semi-final.
With players like Robinson, Grealish and Carruthers at Tony McAndrew’s disposal, it is perhaps not surprising that Villa produced such a scintillating destruction of Sporting Lisbon in the team’s 5 -1 mauling of the Portuguese team in Lisbon in which Drennan and Burke grabbed braces.
Happily, Robinson’s exciting performances in the Next Gen Series recently earned him his first professional contract with the club after ten years development at Bodymoor Heath. The contract is richly deserved, as Robinson’s development this season has perhaps been the most profound in the academy. Not only did he dazzle on the big stage in the Next Gen final but he also produced an end product to complement his performances.
In the second half of the Next Gen Final, Chelsea appeared to have no answer to Robinson and their failure to deal with the young forward ultimately cost them the trophy. Many Villa fans were surprised that Robinson’s match winning Next Gen Series final performance did not earn him a call up to Stuart Pearce’s England Under-21 side, when England badly needed a spark of creativity and unpredictability in the final third of the pitch.
However, as the players report back to the academy on Monday, fans will be looking forward to watching Villa’s young Lions Drennan and Robinson pulling on the famous claret and blues colours with England some way from their thoughts.
Academy watchers will also be interested to see whether any of Villa’s Next Gen Series winners go away with the first team squad on their pre season trip to Germany, or whether the Villa youngsters are encouraged to go on loan considering that, in previous seasons, managers have not had that luxury of using the loan system extensively due to such thread-bare squads.
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