By Simon Glanville
Manchester United’s last-gasp comeback stole the headlines from their clash with Aston Villa at the weekend, but the performances of Villa’s young stars should not be forgotten.
The crippling injury crisis at Villa Park has forced Gerard Houllier into giving some of his youngsters the chance to shine, with the likes of Emile Heskey, Stylian Petrov and John Carew on the sidelines. So far, his young charges have taken to the Premier League like a duck to water.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise. Under the stewardship of Kevin MacDonald, Aston Villa have won the Premier Reserve League South for the past three years, as well as the national Academy title in 2007/2008.
MacDonald temporarily took charge of the senior side earlier this season following Martin O’Neil’s shock departure, and came close to getting the job full-time. He eventually lost out to the more experienced Houllier, but can be credited for blooding a number of his young apprentices into the first-team.
MacDonald has since returned to his previous role, tasked with developing the next batch of stars for the Villa first team. But it’s Houllier who is reaping the rewards of MacDonald’s work with the academy and reserves at Bodymoor Health and Villa Park.
At the weekend, facing up to Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in the middle of midfield were Barry Bannan and Jonathan Hogg. For Hogg, it was a top-flight debut, whilst Bannan was only making his third Premier League start. The inexperienced duo didn’t look out of place against their more seasoned opponents. In fact, they outshone them as Villa took a two-goal lead into the last fifteen minutes.
Another academy graduate, Marc Albrighton scored the hosts’ second to cap a wonderful start to his campaign. The winger has burst onto the scene this season and already has three goals from his ten Premier League starts.
The Villa bench against the Red Devils was also swamped with players that have come through the academy. Highly-rated striker Nathan Delfouneso has already opened his top-flight account and established himself in the first-team fold. The lesser-known quartet of Chris Herd, Eric Lichaj, Shane Lowry and Daniel Johnson were also part of the Villa eighteen, and Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker are another two future stars who have come through MacDonald’s regime.
Villa could worryingly only name a 22-man squad at the end of August for the first-half of the campaign, some three short of the maximum 25 players allowed. That number included fringe players like Isaiah Osbourne, Moustapha Salifou and Curtis Davies, who has seen since been loaned out to Leicester.
But under Premier League rules, clubs can use as many players under the age of 21 as they like to supplement their squads. Villa have certainly used this rule to their advantage. At the age of 20, former Leeds midfielder Fabian Delph is another young star that could come into the fold, although the £6m signing is currently out with a cruciate ligament injury.
In a division where a number of clubs struggle to find the eight home-grown players they need to meet the Premier League requirements, Aston Villa have no such trouble.
It’s refreshing to see so many young players coming through, and the future looks bright at Villa Park. Fans can see local boys playing for their home-town club and the setup must be one of the best in the country.
Alan Hansen once famously said “you’ll never win anything with kids,” ironically after a youthful Manchester United team lost on the opening day of the 1995/1996 Premier League season to Villa. The Red Devils went on to prove Hansen wrong by winning the double that season, and although it may be too early to talk of this current crop of Villa stars in the same vein, they have the makings of a very strong side for years to come.