Seven years ago, Aston Villa’s U19s claimed European glory on Lake Como, beating Chelsea in the 2013 NextGen series final and following Inter Milan’s win over Ajax the year before, UEFA has since re-branded the competition as the Youth League.
FC Barcelona, Chelsea, Red Bull Salzburg and most recently FC Porto have all won the UEFA Youth League with Riqui Puig, Fabio Silva, Antonio Sanabria and Adama Traore among other future stars featuring in the well-regarded youth competition.
The latter of an exciting La Masia crop broke into English football as a raw, inexperienced winger in the worst Aston Villa top-flight side for a generation. Louie Barry then followed the previously untrodden path from Barcelona to Villa Park, though the Sutton Coldfield-born wonderkid has now come home.
“Louie is a local boy and his family are all Villa fans, as is Louie, we firmly believe Louie can be an outstanding number nine for this football club,” Villa Academy boss Mark Harrison told Villa TV.
Newly appointed Harrison was poached from across the city, as was Barry, who indirectly made the switch from West Brom to Villa. Barry has joined numerous claret and blue hopefuls at Bodymoor Heath in a new era that threatens to alter previously unsuccessful, yet traditional regimes.
Jack Grealish and Callum Robinson are the only two of Villa’s NextGen finalists to make a Premier League debut and whilst the quality of the two vastly differ, Graham Burke is the closest thing to third place in a ranking of the 2013 NextGen champions.
Villa has since taken a significant stance on youth operations after the most recent piece of youth silverware in 2018 was swiftly followed by another disbanded squad who ventured into lower leagues. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Mitch Clarke and Corey Blackett-Taylor who won the Premier League Cup failed to catch the eye of Villa’s first-team staff.
Speaking at the Villa Supporters Trust’s AGM recently, Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow said: “Frankly, I’m going to be brutal, 22-year-olds playing in an under-23 team means your system isn’t working.
“It means your system has failed because 22-year-old footballers at Aston Villa need to be in the first team. The ultimate goal is to populate the under-23 team with 11 outstanding 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, then I will know it’s working.
“And that will take years, not months. We need to be higher in recruiting the best eight-year-old, nine-year-old, 10-year-old, 11-year-old, 12-year-old, 14, 16, one a year that makes it and gets a professional contract at 16.”
Villa will shortly populate their youth sides with the right profiles Purslow and Harrison desire, with their masterplan already taking effect. Birmingham Live exclusively revealed that Harrison’s staff had resigned from their posts at The Hawthorns, with Villa going all-out to land Steve Hopcroft.
Hopcroft had been Albion’s head of academy recruitment since 2006, scouting young players such as Louie Barry, Izzy Brown, Rekeem Harper, Kyle Edwards, Nathan Ferguson, Saido Berahino, Kemar Roofe and Romaine Sawyers.
This is the start of a two-part feature looking at possible Villa youth looking to make their name at Villa Park in years to come.
The odd piece of brilliance, skilful montage or scintillating video of Barry strutting his stuff on the international and highest level of youth football has floated around social media after he joined his boyhood club for a fee around £3million. He only left the Baggies for Barcelona last June and was well regarded by the Spanish side despite being the youngest member of their U19 squad.
He represented Barca at Under-19 level aged 16 after being fast-tracked to play in all three of their UEFA Youth League fixtures this season.
Barry was the first-ever Englishman to join the well-famed La Masia academy – home to the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta who’ve all graduated from arguably the highest centre of European football excellence.
Villa fought off a number of clubs to pin down Barry’s future, as did Barca when PSG and other European giants plotted their move for the then Baggies teen. The young forward was even rumoured to have completed a medical with the French giants before Barcelona convinced him otherwise.
After being left disgruntled with changes of staff at Barca, Barry wanted a reunion with his family, football club and importantly Mark Harrison.
Villa’s academy chief said: “His signing sends out a powerful message about the ambition of this football club. We’re delighted.
“He is still a very young man but as he’s developed, he’s always been one player that you always recognise as having outstanding attributes. He’s got a fantastic mentality, he’s desperate to do well for this football club.
“He’s really driven, he’s got great family support, but in terms of what he can achieve, we firmly believe that he can be an outstanding number nine for this football club.”
Harrison believes that a visible pathway to the senior side from the academy is vital for Villa’s youngsters, and there’s quite a few with bundles of potential.
“It’s a significant thing that we’ve done but we have to get the programmes right and the pathways right for these players.
“We’ve laid down the foundations now. What it does show is that with the right attitude and application, what can be achieved in a short space of time.”
Away from Villa, Barry is too the future of the national side’s attacking options. He is rising up the ranks at England youth level and has appearances for their Under-17 squad under his belt. He scored ten times in five games playing at a tournament for England Under-15s at a tournament in 2018.
Without any extra pressure on the kid, he could be one to pin our hopes on for years to come.
Credit to Villa Scout.
Also ready to break into Mark Delaney’s under-23 side is Carney Chukwuemeka.
Playing against players up to seven years his senior, Carney has taken to a higher grade of youth football like a duck to water despite only being 16 years of age.
A youth-team player can only sign on scholarship terms with a view to agreeing a professional deal on his 17th birthday, and Purslow was already arranging a deal before Bodymoor Heath was closed on government advice due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
In recent years, Manchester City paid £4 million to sign Morgan Rogers from West Bromwich Albion, striker Liam Delap from Derby County and Liverpool signed Harvey Elliott from Fulham. All three promising teens rejected scholarships at their first clubs.
“I want that player. We have one right now, probably the best 16-year-old in England, Carney. Absolutely no debate, he’s starting for the U23s,” claimed Purslow at Villa’s AGM meeting.
“That’s what you want with your 16-year-olds. Not people who are not quite breaking into the first team, but staying around on contracts because it isn’t quite happening.”
Primarily playing as a central midfielder, capable of going box-to-box, Chukwuemeka is also able to perform in the ‘No.10’ role. He came through the Villa ranks and is a product of the club’s academy.
In 15 appearances this term for Villa’s u18 side, he has scored two goals and provided six assists as he continues to impress key figures at Villa, who are hopeful of signing the young midfielder on a professional contract.
Manchester City and Liverpool have both been linked to Chukwuemeka in recent months, but academy chief Harrison wants to develop the very best that are already at Villa into potential first-team players.
He believes this is crucial to the long-term sustainability of the club, hence why keeping hold of Chukwuemeka is vital. The Athletic had reported that Villa are willing to offer him a competitive package in the future if he sticks around as Villa face the risk is losing him for a compensation fee only.
Make sure you check back for part two of our look at the Villa Youth players tomorrow