Tom Heaton hasn’t played for Aston Villa in over a year after suffering a knee ligament injury in the Premier League win against Burnley in January 2020.
Villa’s goalkeeper – who joined the club in an £8million deal from Burnley last season – returned to fitness in December and has been providing backup for Emiliano Martínez, who has made the position his own since arriving in a £20million deal from Arsenal last summer.
Heaton’s ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury was the start of a goalkeeping merry-go-round last season, as Dean Smith was forced to hand opportunities to Jed Steer, Orjan Nyland and later Pepe Reina, after more injuries in the goalkeeping department compounded Villa’s misfortune in their first season back in the top flight.
Steer might have considered himself unlucky not to have claimed the No.1 shirt last season having demonstrated the capabilities to start in the Premier League, following his fine displays during Villa’s Championship promotion campaign in 2019. Steer would have to settle for cult-hero status following an Achilles injury earlier in the 2019-2020 campaign.
While four different goalkeepers would get their chance to stake a claim for the all-important starting spot last season, Heaton’s absence was all the more detrimental to Villa’s hopes of survival. Fast forward 12 months and little more needs to be said about the club’s turnaround, from relegation certs to European chancers in little more than seven months.
A mid-season slump might have quashed the slight hope Villa had of qualifying for a top-seven spot this term, but Heaton – a player with experience of European football with Burnley – might well be dwelling on what could be for his national team prospects this summer.
The England international returned to Villa’s first-team fold earlier this season, which would put him firmly on track to play the majority of the Premier League campaign and battle for a spot on the England plane come June after EURO 2020 was postponed for a year following the coronavirus outbreak.
Heaton’s performances for Villa during the start of his first campaign with the club were quite something, albeit playing alongside a defence that would eventually ship the second-most goals in the league that season. Though, while Matty Cash is the only difference in personnel amongst a back-four also consisting of Matt Targett, Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa – Heaton might well have shone like his replacement Emiliano Martínez has done this term.
Once on the books at Manchester United, Heaton spent the early part of his career on loan at a number of clubs in the UK and abroad before signing a permanent deal with Cardiff City.
Following a brief stint with Bristol City, he made the move to Burnley in the summer of 2013.
In his time at Turf Moor, Heaton captained the club and was named Player of the Year for 2016/17.
His form for the Clarets earned him caps for England and he was part of the Three Lions squad for last summer’s Nations League finals.
With a goalkeeping headache of his own this summer, Gareth Southgate will be selecting from Jordan Pickford, Dean Henderson and Heaton’s former Burnley teammate, Nick Pope, to start in the European Championships in June.
With the jury still out on Pickford, regular game time for Henderson is hard to come by, and question marks still remain over Pope’s distribution with the ball at his feet – regular game time for Heaton this season might have propelled him to the front of that queue.
Villa’s capture of Martínez last summer was a piece of business earmarked by many as the best during a busy transfer window last summer, but while the Argentine has demonstrated some incredible form this term, we mustn’t forget the quality Heaton has so often shown between the sticks and the influence that he has in the Villa dressing room.
A leader on and off the pitch, Heaton, alongside Villa teammate Mings have both been nominated as the Premier League’s PFA’s Players’ Board representative. The Players’ Board will comprise of 13 elected representatives, two members from each of the five divisions (Premier League, Women’s Super League, Championship, League One and League Two), plus three former members, two of which must have retired or been a full member in the last five years.
Heaton and Mings were both nominated with Manchester United’s Lee Grant and Leicester City’s Wes Morgan. After signing Heaton from Burnley in 2019, Smith insisted that the goalkeeper’s big experience and leadership qualities will be vital in an emerging, evolving Aston Villa squad.
Much more than an experienced head in Aston Villa’s Premier League resurgence
Smith was delighted with the young, talented nucleus that he was able to assemble two summers ago, but the Premier League knowhow of then 33-year-old Heaton.
Villa’s head coach said: “I thought Tom was just what we needed.
“Tom gives us that experience but he has also got that personality of a leader in and around the dressing room – and one I thought would do well for us.
“I’m very surprised that we managed to get Tom. He’s been a very successful keeper for Burnley. He played the last 19 games and was pivotal in their resurgence in the league.
“He had an injury the season before. You look at the media reaction of the opposition fans and you realise you have a very good signing – when they’re very disappointed that he’s left.”
Heaton admitted that a move to B6 was something he’d been pondering throughout that summer.
One of three England internationals at Burnley at the time, Heaton was then left in no doubt as to where his future lied once he’d spoken with Smith.
He added: “It’s been on the cards for a while. I wasn’t quite sure if it was going to go through.
“I’ve spoken to the manager and it seems like a fantastic opportunity. He’s got a real positive outlook and I was really impressed with everything he had to say.
“I was on board straight away. I didn’t need any persuading.”
It was a point-blank save in a pre-season game against RB Leipzig that had Villa fans believing that Heaton could be challenging Brad Friedel’s clean sheet record last season, maybe not Martínez this campaign. Followed up by impressive stops against Everton in Villa’s first win back at Villa Park in the top flight for three years, before flexing every muscle to scrape a Willian free-kick from out of the top corner at Stamford Bridge later that year.
Injuries would however catch up with Heaton, as a return to Turf Moor would be a bittersweet moment for the goalkeeper and for Villa more generally. Only a second win on the road all campaign, Smith’s side controlled proceedings on New Year’s Day in Lancashire, but not before Heaton and then club-record signing Wesley suffered season-ending blows.
While the Brazilian international is still on his own comeback trail, Heaton is fit enough to offer backup to Martínez, while the former England stopper also plays his part for the Under-23s every so often.
After sustaining his season-ending ACL injury, Heaton was delighted to return to fitness this campaign.
Speaking to VillaTV, he said: “It’s been a bit of a journey to get this point after getting injured at the turn of the year, but it’s fantastic to be back outside.
“To get the gloves and the boots on, it’s a fantastic feeling and I feel like we’re making real progress.”
Heaton’s return to starting action might not have played out as hoped, and while Martínez continues to hunt down club records, and a starting spot in Argentina’s national team, unfortunately for Heaton, his playing opportunities have been drastically reduced at Villa Park.
Testament to his strong character, 33-year-old Heaton hasn’t downed tools nor kicked up a fuss, having originally left Burnley in search of first-time football at Villa a couple of summers ago. Now with EURO 2020 on the horizon, Villa’s backup goalkeeper will be watching the tournament from home, but it’s the experiences of playing hundreds of professional games and travelling to major tournaments that have significantly helped his peers at Bodymoor Heath.
Tom Heaton an invaluable member of Neil Cutler’s goalkeeping department
When the club suffered a major coronavirus outbreak at Bodymoor Heath in January, Villa were left to field a team of Under-18 and Under-23s to face Jürgen Klopp’s Premier League champions, Liverpool. While Louie Barry rightly stole the headlines for scoring Villa’s remarkable goal, on the night, it was goalkeeper Akos Onodi who’d keep the scoreline respectable come full-time.
The battling nature of Villa’s display installed a sense of pride that few performances could in any campaign, but in reality, despite missing key academy stars, Carney Chukwuemeka, Jadon Philogene-Bidace and the Ramsey brothers, Villa’s exciting crop of youth is reflective of the feel-good factor at the club right now.
Many Villa fans might have been puzzled when young prospect Matija Sarkic left for Wolves last July, 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, Heaton after enjoying a successful spell at Livingston before being recalled in the New Year.
The Montenegrin supported both Reina and 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 another bunch of exciting goalkeepers at Villa Park.
From Hungarian stopper Onodi to Finnish 19-year-old ‘keeper Viljami Sinisalo and new signings, 16-year-old Oliwer Zych, and even 13-year-old Sam Proctor, Villa are well stocked in youth sides and in safe hands with an excellent coaching department.
Cutler, who heads up the goalkeeping department at Villa, previously explained how he wants to be coaching the very best, promising 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.”
Sinisalo had started the season as Villa Under-23s number one and as a regular starter for Finland Under-19s. Standing at 6ft 2in tall, Sinisalo began his career in his native Finland with FC Espoo.
Having moved to the UK during the 2018/19 season, aged just 16, Sinisalo almost immediately became the number one for Villa’s Under-18s and Cutler believes the shot-stopper is one of the best of his age anywhere in Europe.
Sinisalo was training with Villa’s first-team for over a year on top of making himself the club’s regular first choice at youth level, but nothing can prepare a young goalkeeper like some wee senior experience north of the border.
The Fin penned a season-long loan deal with Ayr United in the summer and made a good start to life in the SPFL, having made more saves and kept more clean sheets than any other Scottish Championship keeper after the first ten games of the new campaign.
“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, it will really help him in terms of what he needs to be doing, and to learn.”
The goalkeeping department was an area Ayr manager Mark Kerr was looking to strengthen ahead of the new season. He was delighted to capture the services of Sinisalo for 12 months.
“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, Onodi joined Villa from his homeland after catching the eye as a teenager. The Hungarian penned a deal at Villa in 2018, after plying his trade with Eto FC Gyor.
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 U23s.
The 19-year-old goalkeeper won the U18 Premier League Save of the Season for a sensational reflex save onto the crossbar, denying Arsenal’s youngsters a goal in spectacular fashion last year.
Continuing the theme of recruiting young goalkeepers on the continent, 16-year-old Oliwer Zych 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 had 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.
Reports claim 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.
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.”
Sam Proctor, formerly of Peterborough is now the latest ‘keeper to join Villa’s ever-improving academy of young stars after the club forked out £100,000 for the 13-year old earlier this season.
Proctor, who hails from Boston, had been at the Posh Academy since he was eight and even started out as an outfield player. He was selected to attend an England Under-15 training camp at St George’s Park last December and if he pens a professional deal with the club in the coming years, Villa will pay an extra £50,000 for the teenager.
With investment being ploughed into Villa’s first-team, academy squads and the infrastructure to develop and nurture talent across the club, it’s the invaluable presence of people like Tom Heaton who will continue to drive the club to ambitious goals.