For the last few years a lot has been made of the standard of Aston Villa’s youth set-up, with players making the step up from academy football to first team action in the Premier League. The likes of Craig Gardner, Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton and Gabby Agbonlahor are all been products of the clubs’ prestigious academy. The academy’s success was highlighted at the end of the 2012-13 season when Villa’s youth team won the equivalent to the European Cup for their playing level, The NextGen Series, beating Chelsea in the final. With some of the winners of the NextGen Series looking to really make their mark on the first team in the forthcoming season, Villa fans will have some new fresh faces to look forward to.
I am sure many of you will have heard of Jack Grealish – a player with much excitement and anticipation surrounding him. The eighteen-year-old was a member of the pre-season squad last summer, scoring in a friendly against Walsall before being loaned to Notts County for the majority of the season. During his successful loan spell, Grealish made thirty-seven appearances for the Magpies and scored five goals. Notts County fans hold the creative midfielder in very high regard, with many stating that without the contribution made by Grealish the team would most likely have gone down.
Grealish made his competitive debut for Villa’s first team towards the end of the 2013-14 season, coming on as a substitute against Manchester City.
This summer, he travelled to Hong Kong with other members of the academy squad to compete in the Hong Kong Soccer Sevens tournament. He finished the tournament as the top scorer, with six goals to his name, and helped the side to win the Shield competition.
Grealish also has five caps for the the Republic of Ireland U21 side and has scored one goal for his national side.
Callum Robinson is another name that will be familiar to Villa fans. The nineteen-year-old made four appearances for the first team last season, coming off the bench three times to feature in the league, catching the eye of many of the Villa faithful with his dangerous pace and his ability to take opposing players on and beat them.
Robinson has been with Villa throughout his entire youth career and during that time has earned five caps for England’s U19s.
Jordan Graham’s name may not be as recognisable as the others’ because he is yet to feature in any way for the first team. However, he will be known to some followers of Ipswich Town and Bradford City, having had loan spells at both clubs. The nineteen-year-old featured just once for Ipswich and twice for Bradford. Graham is an attacking minded player with lightning pace and he is able to hold players off very well with his impressive strength. He is also part of the youth team that won the NextGen Series.
Daniel Johnson is the current captain of Villa’s academy side. The twenty-one-year-old signed in 2009 after a move from Crystal Palace. Originally from Jamaica, Johnson is yet to make an appearance for the club at senior level but he did watch a couple of first team games from the bench last season. In 2012, Johnson was sent out on loan to Yeovil to get some first team action and to learn more about the competitive senior game, making five appearances for Yeovil.
Given the current budget constraints and following alleged disagreements about the involvement of academy players in the senior squad last season, I think we can expect to see more of these players when the new season begins. Like many other Villa fans, I am keen to see them involved with the first team and look forward to charting their progress.