In 2013, Aston Villa’s talented academy won the NextGen Trophy, beating a host of European clubs and Chelsea in the final to become the very first English club to be crowned Champions of Europe at both senior and Under 19 level. It was an achievement that the club, the players involved and fans should be proud of.
Nevertheless, it is disheartening that only Jack Grealish so far out of all those talented players who competed in the final stages against Sporting Lisbon and then Chelsea is a regular in the first team at twenty-one. Callum Robinson and Daniel Johnson as well as many others are ploughing their furrows at other clubs, which, as a fan, quite frankly hurts; any Villan who was at Deepdale will attest to this.
Mikey Drennan, who was the NextGen’s top scorer that season despite getting injured before the final stages, gave a heartfelt interview recently about depression and how he struggled with the expectations at such a tender age.
Jack Grealish admitted in a recent interview that he struggled to cope with the fame that hit him smack in the face following his performance in the FA Cup semi-final victory over Liverpool in May 2015.
Perhaps where the club, managers, the players themselves, their families and advisers have fallen down previously is preparing and developing this talent into first teamers at B6. Too often, players have promised so much but either ended up being associated more with partying, not making it at all, or indeed having to go elsewhere to forge careers in football.
Under Bruce and the new regime things will hopefully change given time. These lads surely need support, education in life skills and boundaries within a nurturing environment that listens, addresses, admonishes where necessary and rewards when appropriate.
“Get the roots right and the tree will flourish!”
At eighteen, most footballers (and those around them) need to realise they are potential only and surely have no right to demand huge contracts at that stage of their careers. Where is the incentive when you’re already earning each week what some fans earn in a year? Success and the monetary rewards that follow should be recompense for effort and achievement, not an automatic entitlement. For most at that age, as someone said to me, “You’ve won nowt and proved nowt!”
The grass isn’t always greener. Remember Daniel Crowley, who felt his football education lay away from Aston Villa so left for pastures new at Arsenal aged fifteen a few years ago? After Wenger loaned him out to Barnsley previously, it was sad to see him being publicly chastised for his “professionalism and attitude” by the Oxford United manager recently.
It also didn’t go unnoticed by Villa fans that a nineteen-year-old Crowley didn’t even make their Under 21 squad when Arsenal played Aston Villa in the play-off final last season, after his former team had beaten the Gooners home and away in the league games he did take part in.
It was heartwarming to read the comments of the current manager of Stevenage, Darren Sarll, regarding Aston Villa academy loanees Harry McKirdy and Gordan Cowans’ son Henry, along with the club’s others two loanees from Scunthorpe:
“Players like Tyler, Henry, Harry and Jack have taken Stevenage into their hearts and they don’t look like loan players, they look like they are playing for Stevenage, Darren Sarll and the coaching team and their team-mates and that’s why I’d love to keep them together.”
Ironically, this is the same Darren Sarll who was head of Stevenage’s academy when they released Keinan Davis.
Thousands of footballers never make it in the end but, as one coach commented, “Roy Keane got it spot on: being successful in football is about 20% ability and 80% attitude”. Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard… Over the years, it’s become apparent that, just as Danny Higginbottom said on TalkSport, too many academies are producing footballers with the wrong attitudes and the English national team is suffering for it. Perhaps English clubs are breeding too many pampered poodles when what the clubs actually need is a few pit bull terriers! How sad is it when Graham Souness can openly comment live on Sky that if you get one or two top professionals in a Premier League dressing room (awash with money) a manager feels lucky? This is a sentiment shared by one of Keinan Davis’ former coaches:
“He got a second chance because of his love of football. There are too many players, young ones, that have their heads turned for money by agents and, most often, parents. The social landscape a lot of these players come from is not an easy one and the money rather than the football gets the better of their close advisors, which in turn leads to bad advice. It’s about the game and earning respect from it by supporters and fellow players, not what car you drive!”
On the continent in the Bundesliga, young footballers have to have a Plan B career in case of injury or if they simply don’t make it in the beautiful game. They have to study and train in another field as any other young adult would do. For me, this has been a huge failing with too many English academies where everything is geared to churning out footballers, with little regard for what sort of human beings the system is producing.
What an appalling indictment of English football and the billions that surround it at the very top it is when official figures from the PFA state that two out of every three Premier League footballers still go bankrupt at some stage of their lives despite earning eye-watering salaries. Meanwhile, grassroots football and clubs like Biggleswade Town and their coaches, who are doing work that really matters to the game, struggle on the leftover crumbs and shoestring budgets on boggy pitches and with basic facilities, if they’re lucky. Having attended high school soccer games for girls and boys in the USA, where young people are playing on floodlit, purpose built stadiums on carpets, it’s nothing short of a national disgrace.
Aston Villa might not always win or get it right but at least our academy concentrates on producing talented footballers, not just big workhorses who go on to forge careers in football. This is why the leagues up and down the country at various levels are full of former Villa academy graduates, which is something to be proud of.
John Collins hit the nail on the head with this damning indictment of results driven youth development and how we coach footballers in the UK on BBC 5 Live. It is great to see Keinan Davis’ old team-mates have now, along with their manager Dave Northfield and coaching staff, formed a senior team, Biggleswade FC and sit top of their league, playing football the right way. The club’s mission statement is also one to be proud of.
Quite frankly, football and all its corrupt ways needs a reboot.
As for Keinan Davis, all Villans hope that he, as with the rest of our academy players, keeps on progressing, listening and stays on the straight and narrow. His has been an inspirational story so far. How many young footballers up and down the country would be prepared to walk a round trip of six miles to attend training sessions?
Regarding his play, what I would say to Keinan Davis is that he needs to believe in his own talent more. We’ve seen him literally ghost past players as if they weren’t there with the ball at his feet. He’s unselfish. He holds the ball up in the middle, which he continues to improve on each game, with his first touch then tends to feed other players who perhaps take more credit for his hard work. Making his senior debut in the same week he scored another two goals for the Under 23s away at Norwich City in the Premier League Cup won’t have done his confidence any harm.
Various press outlets are reporting that Davis may be loaned out this month along with a few others. Coming from a non-league club and expecting any eighteen-year-old to make the step up to the Championship on a regular basis is a tough ask so I think that would be an excellent idea after making sure Davis had a few senior minutes under his belt.
Watching our Under 23s at Kidderminster Harriers play West Bromwich Albion recently, all of our returning loanees like Harry McKirdy, Kevin Toner and my man of the match Riccardo Calder, another NextGen finalist, who completely snuffed out Loftus-Cheek that night, looked to have improved a great deal whilst out on loan, so hopefully Keinan will seize the opportuinity, improve and grow as both a player and a person.
I know he will continue to have the support of the fans of Aston Villa, like all our youngsters, and the Waders, his family, agent and the coaches who helped him along the way, one of whom admitted to me that “he had a tear in his eye he felt so proud” when he watched one of their “rejects” making his debut at White Hart Lane.
After all, Villans, what is important is the player a club signs, not the club he has played for. Even Wenger is learning that lesson…
Piece submitted by Julie Bayley.