Aston Villa are intent on building a powerhouse academy to supply England with a new generation of talent with players developing at Bodymoor Heath from inside and outside of Birmingham’s borders, which are brimming with exceptionally talented young footballers.
While Louie Barry, Carney Chukwuemeka and Jaden Philogene-Bidace amongst others continue to catch the headlines, the likes of Chisom Afoka and Kahrel Reddin are all also impressing in younger age groups, with their chance to make the step up to Under-23s football soon to come.
Afoka was a surprise inclusion in Villa’s starting line-up against Burton Albion in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday. Played at Villa Park, Sean Verity’s side produced a dominant display to beat Burton Albion 9-0 and advance to the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup.
Villa’s youngsters will now travel to face Newcastle United in the last eight, having scored 12 goals without reply in the last two rounds of the competition. Chukwuemeka forced an own goal for the opener before adding two of his own, while Aaron Ramsey, Barry (3), Brad Young and Seb Revan were all on target against the young Brewers too.
While he didn’t manage to get on the scoresheet for the first time this season in the emphatic win over Burton, Afoka has registered two assists from a wide starting berth in the Under-18 Premier League this campaign. Adept at playing more centrally too, Afoka has however been used predominantly as a winger by Verity this term.
In 2018, Afoka also caught the eye with England, as he was called up to the Under-15s squad alongside former West Bromwich Albion teammate Rico Richards. West Brom have had a long line of success stories of players out of their academy, but as Villa swooped in to sign Afoka last year, he’s now plying his trade at Bodymoor Heath.
In similar circumstances to that of Barry, Afoka left the Hawthorns for Bodymoor Heath with his development now in the hands of Mark Delaney, George Boateng, Verity and Liam Bramley. Even renowned talent spotter Stephen Hopcroft and new Villa Academy Manager Mark Harrison made the switch across the city in recent years.
At the time of Afoka’s England U15 call-up squad, Harrison said: “some of those names are players the rest of the country would love to have taken from us [West Brom].
“They’re the Izzy Browns of this world, we’ve got similar there.”
Brown was a hotly-tipped Albion youngster who Chelsea snapped up at the age of 16 in 2013 and now the Baggies are fighting a losing battle to retain their prized academy assets with Villa in particular keen to sniff out promising talent across the city.
During the international break in which Afoka impressed, current Villa starlet Barry continued a fine run of goal-scoring form for England’s U15s at a 2018 tournament in Italy.
The 17-year-old, who hails from Sutton Coldfield and was on West Brom’s books as early as six years of age, scored ten goals in five England games before signing for Barcelona in 2019. Barry scored once against Japan, twice against the United Arab Emirates, four against the Czech Republic, one against Italy, and twice against Austria.
Amongst the seven new scholars to join a promising U18 Villa squad this season, young winger Reddin has also impressed in his first campaign in Verity’s side.
Frankie Ealing, Taylor-Jay Hart, Joshua Lane, Tommi O’Reilly, Teddy Rowe and Dewain Sewell all put pen to paper on their first contracts at the club in July – but it’s Reddin who has been earmarked by club icon Gabriel Agbonlahor to make the grade.
Speaking to Football Insider, Agbonlahor has predicted that academy stars Barry and Reddin are two future first-teamers at Villa Park. The two 17-year-olds have been impressive for Villa’s U18s and Under-23s of late.
“I’ve heard about Louie Barry, there’s another one, his name’s Kahrel Reddin,” Agbonlahor said.
“But I think they need to play more games in the U18s, U23s, get their experience before they come into the first team because the squad that Aston Villa have got, it’s going to be really tough for them to breakthrough.
“Sometimes loans can help. We’ve seen Jack [Grealish] go on loan when he was 17,18 to Notts County, I went on loan when I was 18 to Sheffield Wednesday.
“Sometimes, get yourself out on loan and go and play with the men. U23s football’s good but there’s nothing better than playing real football and real competitive football and that’s what these players need to do.”
Reddin also grew up in the Sutton Coldfield area and has been at Villa for several years. Football conditioning coach and owner of Peak Performance, James Atkins recently worked with Reddin with training heavily based around flexibility, mobility, rhythm and fluid movement.
Reddin said: “My sessions with Jamie were based on speed, agility and mobility.
“Every session and drill has a specific crossover not only to my game but the position I play. Jamie was always positive throughout our session, this really brought the best out of me.I recently had a hip flexor injury and during our sessions Jamie showed me ways that would limit the chances of this happening again.”
This term, Reddin has been a mainstay in Verity’s starting team and had completed 86 successful short passes in his first eight games this campaign and even won 23 tackles. Eight successful dribbles describe his game better than any other statistical measurement – though Villa’s promising winger isn’t in lonely company, with Philogene-Bidace also making his mark at Bodymoor Heath.
The exciting winger was reportedly of interest to European football powerhouses Manchester City, Ajax and Bayern Munich last year. Football Insider also reported that Arsenal were keeping tabs on the youngster after some eye-catching displays in Villa’s reserve teams last year, but after recently penning a new professional deal at Villa Park, Philogene-Bidace will soon get his chance to prove his worth in Villa’s first team in the coming years.
Bodymoor Heath’s state-of-the-art expansion
Behind the scenes, Villa are quickly becoming one of the more forward-thinking Premier League clubs with a long-term, thorough blueprint in place to create a sustainable pathway for many academy hopefuls at Bodymoor Heath.
After investing up to £200million in transfer dealings since taking over at the club, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are equally invested in improving an academy that has for several years fallen victim to other priorities at Villa Park in previous years.
Villa’s intention is to populate their academy sides with some of the best youngsters from across England, and the capture of Afoka and Co have gone some way in proving Villa’s academy intentions.
Chief executive Christian Purslow, who runs the club on a day-to-day basis on behalf of Sawiris and Edens, said in a Villa TV interview it’s an all-hands-to-the-pump effort to “make this club great again.”
He’s seen, first-hand, the level of investment Villa’s ambitious owners have pumped into the club. At Bodymoor Heath, a brand new £14million academy site was completed last year, with a 500-seater stand, match pitch and other facilities also built to mimic matchday at Villa Park.
Up to £6million has also been spent on extending the first-team’s headquarters with a state-of-the-art performance centre perhaps the most eye-catching of NSWE’s investments.
A brand new multi-purpose gym is now home to Villa’s incredible sports science team who will endeavour to maximise player potential with all the tools and modern technologies available.
Dean Smith, John Terry and Villa’s ever-growing performance team were said to have been impressed on their summer visit to the Minnesota Vikings’ NFL training facility. Edens previously discussed in a Q&A last year that football as a sport has “got a long way to go in terms of analytics data,” compared to the standards seen in the NBA and other American sports.
“It’s something we have to make a big investment into,” he said. “If you have great information most of the decisions are pretty darn simple.”
Purslow added: “I’m also very pleased to report that our first-team HQ is being upgraded hugely with the building of a new performance centre. It increases the workspace for the physical preparation by our athletes by a factor of eight. It’s an absolutely enormous project.”
“I know something about ownership in football. I’m lucky enough to have been in the game a long time and have worked with a lot of owners. I really hope, honestly, that the fans understand when I say to them that Dean, myself and all the staff know that we are backed in all we’re doing to try and make this club great again across all aspects of what we do.
“We’re so lucky and I could not be more sure that the arrival of Nassef and Wes was one of the most important moments in this club’s history because of everything we’re now being able to do that would not be possible without shareholders’ support.”
The impressive North Warwickshire complex at the rear of The Belfry will soon be split apart by the £100billion costing HS2, that will eventually slice through the training ground. The hub for Villa’s youth sides has moved as a result.
Bodymoor Heath’s main entrance will also move, towards Middleton Lakes, with the new academy base situated a short drive past the first-team entrance.
“A huge amount of work has been ongoing at Bodymoor,” explained Purslow.
“I think most of our fans know because of the HS2 project we were essentially forced to rebuild large chunks of our academy operation. That work is complete. Our facility is one of the largest in Europe. It’s open, it’s working. We’re hosting under-23 and youth games now here at Bodymoor in our wonderful new facility.”
Inner-city campus with views of Villa Park
Plans to build a brand new inner-city football academy near Villa Park are also underway. The Premier League club has lodged an application with the city council to develop the state-of-the-art complex on land off Tame Road, close to the stadium and Witton train station.
With Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground around 13 miles away from Villa Park, the facility will cater for youngsters in the surrounding catchment areas. The site is currently being used as a car park for match-day staff, but the proposal put forward to Birmingham City Council includes a full-size indoor 3G pitch, an outdoor floodlit 3G pitch, plus a purpose-built two-storey building that will house six changing rooms.
As well as being used by the club’s youth academy teams, it would also be available to the local community and for the club’s foundation work.
“I’m aware of it and it’s something the football club needed to do,” Villa’s first-team head coach, Smith commented. “We’ve got a fantastic training facility here at Bodymoor Heath but it is nearer to Tamworth than Birmingham and, to have somewhere in Birmingham, would be ideal for us.”
Warwickshire-based HB Architects have been chosen to lead the city academy build, having recently renovated the Holte Suite at a cost of £8.5 million.
In its design statement, a spokesman for HB Architects said: “The club’s focus through the city academy will have two primary aims; to assist Aston Villa in identifying talented local young players (male and female), and to provide access for the local community through the Aston Villa Foundation and partnership working with local junior football clubs.
“The location of the city academy will ensure that young people in the city can access these new facilities easily within the urban area, with direct links available locally via public transport.
“By providing the facility in the shadow of the main stadium, and also in an urban location that is easily accessible on foot, cycle and by public transport, there is a greater opportunity for those young people who may not have access or the support to travel the 12km to the Bodymoor Heath training ground facility.”
Villa’s owners are also thought to have exciting plans to completely overhaul the North Stand once normality resumes, with initial plans including a hotel, museum and a new superstore to replace the one-time ‘Villa Village’ building.
In a recent club statement, Villa’s board announced a new exciting plan to renovate Villa Park. It read: “the Board’s strategy includes a long-term plan to improve our iconic Villa Park home and preliminary designs and schemes are now being formulated both to increase our capacity and modernise our commercial facilities.”
With investments spread across all departments, from scouting and recruitment, academy operations to even making sure all employees throughout the Coronavirus period were not furloughed, Sawiris and Edens are leading Aston Villa into a new exciting era.