“The Under 23s are overhyped”

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Should the kids have a bigger part to play?

I hear this time and time again, but people also often ask me what it is I like so much about the Under 23s. Well, I’ll attempt to address both but, firstly, it’s probably best I tell you how it all started.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m no expert and I do not claim to be the font of knowledge when it comes to our development sides. There are other people out there who have been following our youth set-up for a lot longer than myself. My interest in the side’s progress began less than twelve months ago at a time when the whole club was in turmoil: the board had lost interest, players were under-performing and everyone around the club was deflated and depressed. With regard to our impending relegation, it was just a matter of when, not if.

To cut a long story short, a friend and I recognised the success of the Under 21 team at the time and came up with the idea of a “positive protest”. We planned to try to attract a large crowd to the next Under 21 fixture at Villa Park as the players deserved the support far more than the first team. This would not only give the players a supportive push towards promotion but also show the players and the club that we are willing to support them when they are giving 100%. In March 2016 @SupportThe21s was born. We spent the next few weeks promoting the match and the idea behind it.

The match couldn’t have gone any better. A large crowd witnessed an eventful 3-2 win for Villa over West Ham United. A dramatic ending saw a red card given to Villa’s Kevin Toner. Two full-blooded sliding tackles lifted the crowd but the referee deemed them to be dangerous. All twenty-two players were involved in a lengthy scuffle. It was at this moment I saw the togetherness and fighting spirit within the squad: they all stuck up for each other and, with that, I was hooked.

Following the match and over the next few games, I noticed a few more people were starting to talk a lot more about our younger players. Messages of thanks were received from fellow Villans, having found something positive in a season of depression. A large proportion of fans were unaware they could attend these games and what started out as a “positive protest” became a personal interest and hobby. Encouraged by fans to continue, the Twitter account was rebranded to @AVFCU23.

So back to the question: what is it I like about watching the Under 23s?

What the first team last season lacked in passion and fight, the Under 23 side has in abundance. It’s refreshing to hear the sound of every kick and positive cries of encouragement from one another. Uncontaminated by television, cars, money and advertising, our young players play with freedom. They are all determined individuals who thoroughly enjoy what they do. This is not a team spliced together by various managers with differing transfer kitties. There are no egos amongst them and they are not taking home tens of thousands of pounds a week. Most of the squad will have lived together, grown up together and developed together at the club from a very early age; you cannot buy team spirit like this.

The reason I like watching the Under 23s is simply because I enjoy watching football and I love Aston Villa. These guys never let me down for effort – and that is all I ask. When they put on those shirts, they give 100%.

#AVFC is always full of debate and there are a few tweets I see quite often that I can’t quite answer in a tweet, so I’ll attempt to do so now, offering what is entirely my opinion.

They’re just as bad as the first team, we’re doing rubbish in the league.” “We should be in the higher division.”

The league never lies, they say. Well, I’m going to suggest that ‘Premier League 2’ does.

At the time of writing, Aston Villa’s Under 23 team is mid-table in the second division of ‘Premier League 2’ on par with the first team which is also mid-table in the second tier. The difference between the two teams is this: the first team manager picks what is, in his opinion, the best eleven players at the whole of Aston Villa Football Club to start the match ahead. He will find players who form the spine of his team and, most importantly, he will find consistency.

Under 23 coaches, however, don’t quite have the same selection process. A few points to consider are:

  • First team players who are returning from injury or are lacking match fitness quite often feature. (We saw this last season as Santi Cazorla and Callum Chambers were both instrumental in the promotion play-off final against Aston Villa).
  • Our best prospects are usually sent out on loan. (Kevin Toner, Harry McKirdy, Easah Suliman, Riccardo Calder, Niall Mason and Henry Cowans most recently).
  • Three overage outfield players are permitted and one goalkeeper. (Joleon Lescott featured earlier this season).
  • The first team manager may select certain players he wishes to see.
  • Players are quite often played out of their preferred positions in order to get game time.

In a recent game against West Bromwich Albion, our starting XI featured four players who had just returned from loan, one returning from a lengthy injury and two who had played for the first team the day before. The opposition included Saido Berahino, who scored two of West Brom’s goals, yet the final score was still 3-3.

The strength of our team and our opposition can differ greatly game by game. Many of our games this season have featured centre half pairings from the Under 18s and ,as I said above, they can potentially face a Premier League quality strike force. Aston Villa has also fielded first team players. Sometimes they excelled  and sometimes they have been dreadful. It’s just a feature of the league. You never know what you’re going to get.

I’d suggest that the Under 23 league tables are not an accurate representation of the ability of a club’s development players.

I’m sure it would surprise you if I said the top three teams in the upper division last season were Manchester United (perhaps not), Sunderland and Everton. Meanwhile, Reading finished level on points with Spurs and, in Division 2, Derby County finished first, whilst Arsenal was promoted via the play-offs (beating Aston Villa). Newcastle finished third from bottom.

Premier League 2, or the Under 23 league, whichever you want to call it, is used differently by each of the clubs involved. There is a strong focus on individual development for all kinds of reasons. Even though there is a great team spirit amongst the Villa hopefuls and there is always a desire to win games, individual development outweighs results. It would be nice to be top of the league. Imagine the banter with all the other clubs if you could go round saying that we have the best youth team but it’s pretty short sighted. Having started off praising the success last season, I now realise it’s solely about the players.

“It’s rubbish, I’m not coming again.”

Some people simply won’t enjoy it. It goes without saying that it’s a totally different atmosphere to a senior game at 3pm at Villa Park but if you have a strong interest in football and a desire to learn more about your club you’ll enjoy it.

“We don’t produce enough players from our academy.”  “They can’t be much good if they aren’t being picked.”

If you have a wonder-kid on your hands then he’s got a really good chance of coming through but you can’t just throw him in with a bad bunch; the surrounding players need to be strong and reliable. Quite simply, opportunities like this haven’t occurred at Villa for a very long time. There needs to be support for developing players who may be prone to making a mistake. If you’re ten points clear at the top of the table, or even firmly in the upper half, perhaps it isn’t a problem. However, it’s not a luxury we have at Aston Villa. As much as I admire recent debutant Keinan Davis and fellow youngster André Green for their recent appearances in the first team, you have to admit this probably wouldn’t have happened without our lack of options due to AFCON.

“The Under 23s are overhyped.”

I’m not going to tell you we have the next Messi waiting to come through the ranks because, from what I’ve seen, we don’t. I am not going to reel off a few names of players who I think will make the grade. What I will say is that we, like all of the other clubs at our level, have a lot of potential at Aston Villa. this is supported by the vast number of scouts we still have attending our games. To have come this far already means they probably will make a career out of football at some level but at such a young age they remain potential. Keeping their feet on the ground and educating them in life is just as important as their ability. The majority of players won’t make it here, and we will have to let them go, but if you take off your Villa hat for a second and consider the English game, the standard of the English football league relies on youth academies.

We probably do over-hype our youth players but that’s not unique to Aston Villa; it’s part and parcel of being a supporter. We love our players, we love our club, we want them to succeed and we want the club to succeed.

Going forward, I’m optimistic that Villa will eventually become successful enough to bring more youth players through. At the moment, Bruce, Clemence and Round are all showing a keen interest in the players, having been present at all of the games so far, and I also trust that along with Tony Xia’s vision for the future our youth development can only improve from here onwards. Whilst the new board members and management are doing everything they can to make Aston Villa the club it deserves to be, let’s do our bit and support the players right through the ranks and create a positive vibe throughout the club.

Finally, if you haven’t been to an Under 23 game before and you’re within a reasonable distance for a 7pm Monday night kick-off then I’d love to see you there. Under 23 football can provide a relatively inexpensive and enjoyable family night out. If you’re a season ticket holder, home games are free. If you’re not, adult tickets are £3 and children’s ones are £1. The club car park is available to use and refreshments are also on sale.

That’s my opinion for now. I haven’t got the answers to everything and I’m sure you’ve all got your own opinions. I’d love to hear any feedback you have so please, if you have a minute, tweet me @AVFCU23.

Up the Villa!

Scheduled remaining home fixtures:

  • Mon Feb 20 Stoke City H Bescot Stadium 7pm
  • Mon Mar 13 Brighton and Hove Albion H Villa Park 7pm
  • Piece submitted by AVFC U23.

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