Aston Villa U18s making great strides

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Colin Odutayo

Aston Villa have been busy restructuring recruitment and youth development operations over recent months as the club begins to lay the foundations for NSWE’s exciting plans.

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 £200 million 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.

Alongside CEO Christian Purslow, academy manager Mark Harrison has been identifying and recruiting several youngsters with their desirable profiles. Villa’s academy overhaul is not only beginning to take shape, but also turning heads across the country.

This summer, Villa signed seven new teenagers with five of them coming in from across Europe. Newly appointed sporting director Johan Lange has also been busy improving Harrison’s academy, having orchestrated some savvy deals for Copenhagen during his stint in a similar role before being head-hunted at Villa.

Villa have scoured the length and breadth of Europe to recruit players who have trained with Premier League champions Liverpool, been offered trials at Bayern Munich and even tempted with VIP Champions League tickets.

The final of seven signings this summer was Ruben Shakpoke, a highly-rated striker bought from Norwich City’s academy. The promising teenage forward joined Villa having represented England at Under-15 level and is also eligible to represent Nigeria in the future.

According to reports, Villa even beat Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven to Shakpoke’s signature. The striker had a number of suitors on these shores too, but such is Villa’s pull with an ambitious project to break into the upper echelons of English football in the coming years – academy prospects want in.

Despite Shakpoke not yet making an appearance in Villa’s new-look Under-18 set up, Villa’s youngsters have won all five of their opening U18 Premier League South fixtures. Sitting pretty at the top of the division’s summit is no mean feat when competing with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and the renowned academy Southampton.

Villa are already seeing on-field results following their impressive academy overhaul.

Shakpoke is still awaiting his U18s debut

Youth recruitment translating to on-field success

The impressive capture of Shakpoke followed the arrival of Oliwier Zych – who replaced Viljami Sinisalo in the U18 side after the Hungarian goalkeeper made a loan switch north of the border to Ayr United.

Harrison, after Villa, announced the signing of Zych, said: “This signing, along with all of our new additions, is the result of a lot of hard work in terms of recruitment and further evidence of the club’s vision to build a long-term player development strategy, which is backed by Nassef, Wes, Christian and Johan.”

It’s important to note Harrison’s delight at the club’s hierarchy for offering a degree of support that can drastically change Villa’s pulling power within a competitive market for Europe’s most promising stars.

For many a year, the Netherlands has been the breeding ground for many Premier League players, and top European talents.

The Eredivisie has been a major source of talent in the past, form Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Luis Suárez – all three were at one time a Premier League top scorer, while both Romário and Ronaldo also began their exceptional European careers in the Netherlands.

Villa are now poised to make use of the fruitful market to improve their own youth sides. In particular, the U18 side have been bolstered by the acquisitions of Dutch wonderkids Lamare Bogarde and Sin Swinkels.

Netherlands youth international Bogarde has made three-goal contributions in his first three starts for Villa, including two goals in games against Reading and Tottenham.

Securing his signature was a real coup for Harrison, who said: “He is a player with immense potential and the commitment that will go into fulfilling that starts now.”

Another arrival from Holland was the transfer of centre-back Swinkels from Vitesse Arnhem, a player who’s been an ever-present during Villa’s opening five academy games since he moved to the second city.

Swinkels has helped Villa keep two clean sheets and after the first five games, only conceding three goals is the best defensive record of any club at the start of the 2020-21 campaign. Fellow defender and new recruit Aaron O’Reilly hasn’t yet made a start for the U18s and along with Irish compatriot, Caolan McBride, the two have joined the Bodymoor Heath project from St Patrick’s Athletic and Glentoran respectively.

Ben Chrisene has been an ever-present to Villa U18s excellent start

Another ever-present in Villa’s U18s, Ben Chrisene has been a stand out performer for Villa’s academy having penned a long-term deal at Villa Park after leaving his boyhood club Exeter City.

Stand out performer, Ben Chrisene

Exeter’s president and director of football and external affairs, Julian Tagg praised Villa for their professional approach and fairness during the transfer dealing, which saw the Grecians receive a compensation package.

“Whilst the fee is undisclosed, when a possible arbitration fee is considered we are pleased with the valuation,” Tagg said.

“Aston Villa have been very professional and fair in their dealings with Exeter City and we as a club would like to acknowledge that.

“We must, of course, thank our coaching staff, in the academy and the first-team environment, for their continued excellent work in producing players of such high quality, but also recognise the hard work and dedication both Ben and his family have shown whilst he has been part of academy and first-team set-up.

“Ben is a talented footballer, but also one who works hard and is dedicated to learning and improving. Therefore, he deserves all the success he gets, and we wish him well at Aston Villa and hope he goes on to have a long and successful career at the top of the game.”

Villa’s midfield prospect came off the bench to beat Ethan Ampadu’s record, when aged 15 years, 7 months, and 1 day, he deputised in Exeter’s EFL Cup defeat to Coventry City in August.

He then made five more first-team appearances last season, as well as representing England at youth level, so it’s no wonder Villa were keen to snap up the promising midfielder with interest brewing from Europe’s elite clubs Liverpool, Chelsea and Bayern Munich.

Frank Lampard had invited Chrisene to train with Chelsea, while Southampton were also keen to watch the youngster up close.

After making his record-breaking debut at St. Andrew’s, Exeter boss Matt Taylor praised the exciting midfielder.

“He’s going to play at the top level, it’s as simple as that,” Taylor said.

“What that top level is for Ben, he’s 15 years old, I can’t tell you that yet. But I think he’ll play at a top, top standard of football.

“The opportunities we give to our academy players are second to none in terms of the country, and possibly worldwide as a football club. But there’s a reason we do that. We see the value in it in years to come.”

It’s been an encouraging start for Villa’s youngsters in the U18 Premier League, but only time will tell if this crop of promising stars can continue to make strides towards a future with the club at first-team level.

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