Aston Villa are bringing through a new conveyor belt of talent at Bodymoor Heath with a trio of goalkeepers all destined for big things in their respective careers.
Many Villa fans were puzzled when young prospect Matija Sarkic left for Wolves but take a look at the bigger picture and Villa are by no stretch in short supply of promising stoppers of their own.
22-year-old Sarkic was promoted to third-choice goalkeeper back in January following the season-ending injury to No.1 Tom Heaton after he enjoyed a successful spell at Livingston before being recalled in the New Year.
The Montenegrin supported both Pepe Reina and Orjan Nyland on matchdays as Villa secured their Premier League status for another year, but without a pathway to the first team in the foreseeable future, Sarkic has since made way for a new crop of exciting goalkeepers at Villa Park
From Finnish 19-year-old ‘keeper Viljami Sinisalo to Hungarian stopper Akos Onodi and new signing, 16-year-old Oliwer Zych, Villa are well stocked in youth sides and in safe hands with an excellent coaching department.
Neil Cutler, who heads up goalkeeping at Villa, previously explained how he wants to be coaching the very best, promising goalkeeper goalkeepers from around Europe.
“We want to be the best goalkeeping department in the Midlands, if not the country”, Cutler said.
“Goalkeepers through the system and into the first-team has to be the way forward.
“We’ve got detailed goalkeeping coaches who believe we can do that. We don’t want to be out spending millions and millions. We want to be developing our own first and foremost.”
When Villa’s new £22 million goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez signed on in September, it was a real coup by the club – a transfer mainly exploited by Cutler.
The Argentine explained how starting his next chapter after ten years at Arsenal was never going to be easy.
“I did my research first,” Martínez told Villa TV.
“I spoke to many goalkeepers that I know and they only told me good things about him.
“When I spoke to him, he told me the way he works and how he wants me to improve my game. I truly believe his words, that’s why I’m here.”
Cutler joined Villa with a track record of improving goalkeepers he’d worked with at Walsall and West Bromwich Albion.
At Walsall, he nurtured a young Neil Etheridge, who played in the Premier League with Cardiff in the 2018-19 campaign and also helped current Bradford City goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the country in my opinion,” O’Donnell told Vital Walsall.
“On a personal note I can’t thank him enough for the work he did with me while I was at Walsall…he took me to the next level, pushed me every day all to make me better.
“Not only is he a great coach, but a great guy and a very good friend. Still, we speak daily and still we speak after games about performances and goals conceded.”
18-year-old Sinisalo is the No.1 for Villa’s Under-23 side and a regular for the Finland Under-19s. Standing at 6ft 2in tall, Sinisalo started his career in his native Finland with FC Espoo.
He moved to the UK during the 2018/19 season, aged just 16, and almost immediately became the number one for Villa’s U18s.
Cutler believes the shot-stopper is one of the best of his age anywhere in Europe and after training with Villa’s first-team for over a year on top of making himself the club’s regular first choice at youth level, senior experience north of the border was key for the Fin.
Sinisalo penned a season-long loan deal with Ayr United as he looks to build experience of first-team football in the SPFL as Sarkic did with Livingston last season.
Sarkic shone on loan at Livingston in the first half of the 2019/20 campaign, keeping six clean sheets in 18 Scottish Premiership games, but if Cutler is right in believing Sinisalo is one of the best 18-year-old’s on the continent, Villa could have a star on their hands.
“He’s very calm when he’s stepped in and doesn’t look out of place,” Cutler said recently when speaking to Villa TV.
“If you see a young goalkeeper like Viljami who’s got a really good chance to accelerate his learning, he needs to be training with the likes of Pepe Reina, Orjan, Tom and Jed. It will really help him in terms of what he needs to be doing, and to learn.”
The goalkeeper department is an area Ayr manager Mark Kerr was looking to strengthen ahead of the new season. Last term’s number one Ross Doohan is now with Ross County, so Sinisalo will get his fair share of minutes.
Kerr was delighted to get his man before the window slammed shut.
“Villa considers Viljami one of the best of his age, anywhere in Europe”, Kerr said.
“He is extremely highly rated and has been training with the Villa first team for the last year.
“We have had him up to have a look at him and he has shown us the level of his potential and our goalkeeping coach has been hugely impressed by him.”
The Finnish keeper made his move to Ayrshire after lengthy conversations with Villa’s own Scot, John McGinn.
“I’m only 18 so for my career plan it is massive to get these experiences out on loan and play competitive football. It’s completely different to U23s and I’m looking forward to getting these experiences.
“I spoke to John McGinn and he also spoke to the gaffer as well. It was really nice to get some encouraging words from a seasoned pro like him.
“I’ve been with the first team at Aston Villa for a good 18 months so I feel like I’ve developed as a player. It’s been great to train with the player’s Villa have and see the quality that everyone has.”
Like Sinisalo, Akos Onodi joined Villa from his homeland after catching the eye as a teenager.
Onodi penned a deal at Villa in 2018, after plying his trade with Eto FC Gyor in his native Hungary.
Onodi had been providing competition for Sinisalo with the Under-18s and Sarkic with the Under-23s development squad before at the start of this season being promoted with his Finish teammate to the under-23s.
The 19-year-old goalkeeper won the U18 Premier League Save of the Season for a sensational reflex save onto the crossbar, denying Arsenal a goal in spectacular fashion last year.
When Onodi joined Villa, he announced his arrival on Twitter, writing: “I’m really glad to get everything sorted and officially become an Aston Villa player. I’m delighted to belong to a club like Aston Villa.”
— Onódi Ákos (@OnodiAkos) September 29, 2018
Prosoccerglobal, the agency that represents Onodi, added: “Massive congratulations to our friend and Hungarian U18 International GK, Akos Onodi, who has officially transferred to Aston Villa FC.”
The teenager is also capped for Hungary’s Under-16s and Under-17s, so he is certainly rated as an up and coming ‘keeper in his home nation.
The 16-year-old was a part of Zagłębie Lubin’s youth system, having joined them from Arki Gdynia in 2018 but continuing to develop his career, Zych is one of several new recruits for Aston Villa’s Under-18 squad.
The Polish Under-16 international has been invited to trials at Arsenal, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in years past, but despite not making his debut for Zagłębie Lubin’s first team, he was on the bench for two Polish Cup games last year.
It’s being reported that Villa paid training and development costs to his former club Lubin, who play in Poland’s top flight. Having played at multiple youth levels for Poland, Zych is well accustomed to the pressures of emerging as a shining light in his homeland.
After Cutler helped scout Finland’s Sinisalo and Hungary’s Onodi, Zych has all the credentials to become a contender for Villa’s first-team in the years to come.
Mark Harrison said upon Zych’s arrival: “This signing, along with all of our new additions, is the result of a lot of hard work in terms of recruitment.
“It is further evidence of the club’s vision to build a long-term player development strategy, which is backed by Nassef, Wes, Christian and Johan.”
Goalkeeper Zych most recently met up with Poland’s Under-17s for their October internationals.