At one corner of the Camp Nou, jammed in between the northern end of the stadium and the maternity hospital, stands the former 18th-century farmhouse, La Masia, dwarfed by surrounding Catalonia architecture.
FC Barcelona’s vast amount of success is largely due to its academy, that there can be no doubt. La Masia leaves the Barcelona DNA forever imprinted on its students with a philosophy as attractive and simplistic as it is effective; to pressure, to keep possession and attack.
The famous farmhouse is no longer in use as the club favours a modernised, tall and shiny building characterised by functionality at a cost of almost €10 million. Long gone are the days that the famous residential farmhouse would help nurture the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and the rest of the tiki-taka brigade.
Dimly lit, lecture-like rooms are scattered across the modern La Masia’s five-storey complex about three miles east of Camp Nou. It is the central nervous system of the FC Barcelona behemoth despite lying adjacent, about the width of a football pitch away, from an Aldi supermarket.
This was about as homely as it got for Louie Barry who swapped the Black Country for Catalonia in the summer of 2019 – a move away from West Bromwich Albion‘s academy that enhanced his growing reputation. A 16-year-old Englishman joining the Catalan giants is as exciting as it sounds.
The striker joined West Brom at the age of six and left at 16, having honed his game with the academy to such an extent he became one of the most prolific young goalscorers in the country at the club and international level.
Though domestic rules prevented the club handing Barry a professional deal until his 17th birthday, despite international regulations allowing him to negotiate with overseas clubs in the meantime.
Barry spoke at length to French giants Paris Saint-Germain before signing for Barcelona, but after just six months in Spain, a homesick Barry made his way back to the West Midlands to join Villa in a deal worth up to around £700,000 upfront and rising to £3 million.
When Barry’s six-month excursion to the Mediterranean ended, West Brom were far from pleased and even less so when the teenager joined Midlands rivals Villa. For Barry, it was a homecoming to the club his family supports.
Despite his time at Barcelona coming to a premature ending, Barry learnt an awful lot at La Masia. He trained with his Barcelona U19A team-mates for the five months leading up to his move to Villa in a state of the art Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training complex.
Rooms at the new La Masia are distributed over five floors rather than two at the heart of the Ciutat Esportiva with a capacity for 83 youngsters, giving players optimal conditions to succeed. The complex includes ‘unbeatable installations that were exclusively designed to optimise the intellectual, personal, and social development of young sportspeople’.
No longer 600 square metres, but the complex stretches over an impressive 5,000 square metres to hone the next generation of La Masia alumni. Barcelona are never too far off finding the next Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova or Luis Enrique, and even Barry’s short time on the Iberian Peninsula has equipped the young forward with the technical and tactical competencies to develop into a superstar at Bodymoor Heath.
One famous requirement of any Barcelona coach is to field a team with a 4-3-3 formation – that’s about as far a qualification a coach needs at La Masia; cementing the club’s identity which Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, two of the most successful football academies in world football, have also deployed.
La Masia to Bodymoor Heath: Louie Barry’s untrodden, yet exciting path
Carles Folguera, La Masia director said: ”We’re always looking for a type of player who’s not physical but a very good thinker, who’s ready to take decisions, who has talent, technique and agility. Physical strength is not important.”
For Barry – a striker that holds plenty of physical efficiencies in his own right – is a bright forward, who for a number of years has plied his trade in England youth and academy sides as he made a name for himself as a potent number nine.
During pre-season last season, Barry was playing alongside Ansu Fati, the latest youngster to take the Camp Nou by storm. Barry was unable to play in competitive youth fixtures however as he had to wait over ten weeks to receive clearance from FIFA to be able to play.
Changes with internal staff further limited his opportunities – but despite his lack of actual playing time, the youngster was learning a lot in training, ‘coming on leaps and bounds and improving in confidence’. He was considered good enough to succeed at Barcelona, but wasn’t given the opportunity to do so – and joined Villa’s ambitious academy project for a fee of around £3,000,000 just six months after joining Barcelona.
A move to Barcelona was quite understandably too tempting to resist for Barry – then a 16-year-old with the world at his feet. But as Villa came knocking with the youngster’s former academy coach Mark Harrison leading the pursuit, Barry returned to Sutton Coldfield to continue his development back home.
Villa had tried to land him several times during his decade at Albion, according to reports, but each time he remained loyal to the club who he joined at six years of age. Barry has now joined on an initial figure much lower than Villa would have been ordered to pay by a tribunal had the forward joined directly from Albion without the Barcelona debacle.
Villa find themselves in the best position on the pitch than what they have done in the top-flight for over a decade, but in particular, off the field, with the ambitions and deep pockets of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, the thought of Barry taking to the first team in the years to come is no pipe dream.
The fact that Barry himself supports Villa draws comparisons with the remarkable journey Jack Grealish has made, but only time will tell if this prodigy can replicate such heights.
Former Albion youth coach Harrison, who moved to Villa during the period where Barry was in Barcelona, has rated the striker very highly after working with him for several years before Barry departed for Spain in 2019.
“He is still a very young man but as he’s developed, he’s always been one player that you recognise as having outstanding attributes,” said Harrison.
“He’s got a fantastic mentality. He’s desperate to do well for this 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 No 9 for this club.”
There is a firm belief at Villa that Barry is already among the best finishers at the club and certainly in the age groups below the first team, but forcing a way into the senior set-up is an altogether challenging prospect.
It remains to be seen whether this season will be the one he makes it onto the bench or even the pitch for the first-team, but as he continues to impress in Premier League 2 fixtures, Barry will be in the thoughts of Dean Smith to feature at least amongst the substitutes bench after handing cameos to Jacob Ramsay and Indianna Vassilev last season.
As Villa found goals hard to come by last term with Ally Samatta and Keinan Davis struggling to offer a goalscoring threat at the top of a desperate Villa side last term, many Villa fans wanted to see a glimpse of what Barry could offer during Project Restart.
For the first time in 25 years, no Villa forward or midfielder had scored a single goal after nine consecutive Premier League games during Villa’s worst spell during Project Restart, and so the clamour for Barry to be handed a first-team appearance wasn’t such a desperate plea.
Barry is still in the process of changing from a boy into a man and his time will duly come and when it does, there is confidence among those in charge of Villa’s academy that it will be worth the wait – his promise will continue to generate excitement this season and next.
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The 17-year-old is particularly rated as a natural goal machine having not relied on any single physical competency, whether it be speed or power to make an impact on youth games. He is wiry, aggressive and certainly not short of persistence nor confidence with an unshakeable appetite for scoring goals.
In Barry’s first six starts for the U23s this season, he managed to score five times as he competes against players up to six years his senior. Only days after arriving at Bodymoor Heath, Barry scored the winner for the U23s in a behind-closed-doors fixture against Cardiff City and made an instant impression on head coach Smith and his assistant John Terry.
Joining the likes of Jack Grealish and Smith, another local lad wearing his heart on his sleeve is something to look forward to for Villa fans so often culpable of pinning their hopes on youngsters unable to make their first-team breakthrough.
Barry’s flurry of goal contributions at U23 level last season too – six in three – is an encouraging record that surpasses a per 90 output than former academy hopefuls that Villa have handed debuts to at similar ages.
His livewire style and direct intentions can add a progressive speed amongst Villa’s ranks as Smith’s side are well set up to produce enough counter-attacks and execute incisive passing moves to flip opposing defences as seen this season.
Barry has earned the opportunity to showcase his talent after hitting the ground running in reserve games and behind-closed-doors friendlies.
‘Louie has been an academy signing first and foremost but he is one with an awful lot of potential,’ said Smith after buying the striker with bags of potential.
Barry has an insatiable appetite to score goals but he is also willing to listen in order to learn. He has played with a number of promising England teenagers at youth level, Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham being the pick of the bunch.
Barry turned 17 in June and was still unable to drive when he signed on at Villa, but his ability and indeed knowledge of the game exceeds his age. Villa have held back plenty of promising academy players in seasons past and even though Barry has only made a handful of U23 games, the reputation he built up at England youth levels and at most recently La Masia speaks volumes of the player he can become.
Another England U17 teammate, Harvey Elliot has also made strides in the top-flight after making his Fulham debut aged 15. Elliot’s impressive performance at Villa Park in the EFL Cup forced Jurgen Klopp to include him in matchday squads last season packed with fully-fledged International stars – he even claimed a Premier League winners medal.
Villa chief executive Christian Purslow recently claimed Barry is ‘the best 16-year-old in England’ and if his claims are anything to go by, the teenager’s opportunity with the first team can’t be far away judging by the rapid development of many others in his age group this season.
“The signing of Louie Barry from Barcelona was… sometimes in business and in sport, sometimes you need a marquee development to signal to the rest of the marketplace that we’re back in business,” Purslow said.
“We wanted to signal to 14, 15 and 16-year-olds and their parents that Aston Villa is deadly serious about youth football. So we take the only British 16-year-old to ever be transferred to Spain.
“He didn’t settle. People have asked me this. His family are Villa mad, the kid’s Villa mad, but he went to Barcelona, joined their academy and all the management of Barcelona changed.
“Imagine, you’re 16, you’ve moved out to Barcelona and the three people who recruited you and talked you into the job aren’t there anymore – and you’re 16, away from home.
“He was very unsettled and we sensed an opportunity. I’m very grateful to Barcelona who acted incredibly professionally to basically facilitate Louie coming to Aston Villa. In a world of England youth football, they all know Louie because he’s the best 16-year-old in the country – and he’s just gone to Aston Villa.
“Imagine what that does for our recruitment potential. It was a statement of intent, I’m very proud of it, but judge my actions in another year’s time.”
Barry left Barca’s renowned academy of excellence after feeling unsettled and when his boyhood club came calling, he was on the first flight home. For many youngsters, including Bellingham and formally Barry, playing abroad can offer another pathway to the top.
Jamal Musiala, another U17 England international made his breakthrough in Europe at none other than Bayern Munich earlier this month. Barry might well be fast-tracked too if Smith, Terry and Richard O’Kelly believe the youngster is up for the challenge.
Barry feels like a star in the making and it may not be long before he is given the platform to prove it – the future of Aston Villa looks bright and the young striker will be a big part of any success the club finds in years to come.