Every fan loves a local hero. Names such as Steven Gerrard, Alan Shearer or Harry Kane have reached stellar heights in coming through the youth systems and playing for their boyhood teams. These players become synonymous with their hometown club and embody the spirit, pride and love for the club which fans feel.
Most fans find more satisfaction in producing a home-grown talent rather than paying for a finished article. It’s the prospect of unearthing the next superstar or cult hero that excites fans so much. As a youth set-up, Aston Villa has been more successful than most. In recent years, youth teams have won The NextGen Series, FA Premier Youth League and FA Youth Cup. So why have so few graduates made a mark at Senior level in recent seasons?
In the last 5 years, we’ve seen varying approaches to producing a strong first team, all with similar levels of failure. From bringing in experienced premier league professionals to buying raw, young imports from abroad packed with potential. However, very few squad members came through the Villa ranks.
However, if we look beyond this time, there were a handful of youth players that did gain first-team exposure enough to make a lasting impression. Players like Steven Davis, Gary Cahill, Peter Whittingham, Luke Moore and Gabriel Agbonlahor, all broke through to become key members of the squad. While recently, Eric Lichaj, Marc Albrighton, Craig Gardner, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Delfounseo have also tasted first-team action. None of these apart from Agbonlahor is still at the club while we all know what has happened to Cahill and Albrighton since leaving.
However, this season, there are signs that there are new heroes in waiting, ready to take centre stage. Keinan Davis, although a very recent youth team acquisition from non-league football being the most obvious. Also, there is Andre Green, Jack Grealish, Callum O’Hare, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Jake Doyle-Hayes who are making positive inroads.
The trouble is these players can gain experience in the Academy and at U’23 level but none quite match the intensity, demands and ability level of Championship football. That is potentially why so few players have made the step-up recently.
Manchester City has acknowledged this fact too. Pep Guardiola identified quickly that the gulf in class between the U’23’s and first team football was so vast that a transitional period was needed. His solution was for City to buy a stake in Girona FC, a club recently promoted to La Liga from the Spanish second division. Immediately, City loaned out a crop of promising youngsters who were too good for the U’23’s yet not good enough to be in the first team squad.
These prospects could then play and be around competitive football, playing in a meaningful league against players of experience. We will see over the forthcoming years, how successful this approach will be for City but what Guardiola is trying to achieve makes sense. Albeit, it is not practical for 95% of teams who operate in the Football League to acquire teams to act as loan development systems.
Back to Villa. We don’t know how well our youth players will do. Any who break through into the first team will need to prove that they are worthy of a spot in the team very quickly. The priority this season has to be gaining promotion. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to waste to be patient and give the players time to adapt, make mistakes and better themselves. With Financial Fair Play regulations soon to come in and the parachute payments soon ending, Steve Bruce may put his faith in experience to achieve the aim of getting out of this league.
Ironically, if Villa doesn’t get promoted this season, this may have a benefit for the youngsters. Due to the FFP rules and parachute payments mentioned above, staying in the league could see the loss of several high earners and star players. The outcome being a team constructed of U’23 players and experienced professionals that we can afford.
We all want local heroes but we may have to bide our time for them.