Aston Villa are a club that has always prided itself on producing and nurturing the finest young footballing talent England has to offer.
Over the years, the academy has produced several household names such as Gary Cahill, Gareth Barry, Marc Albrighton, Steven Davis, Gabriel Agbonlahor and, most recently, he who shall not be named (*whispers* Jack Grealish). Despite the unfortunate nature of his departure, it is important to realise that Villa received a fee of £100million for an academy graduate, something that is relatively unheard of in present-day football.
For a period spanning from Villa’s relegation season up until fairly recently, the club’s youth production had been quite poor. Several highly-rated young players such as Callum O’Hare, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Andre Green didn’t seem to reach the heights they were tipped for, with all 3 players leaving upon the expiration of their contacts and are currently playing for Coventry City, Pafos and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. This, coupled with severe turmoil off the pitch involving the club’s finances, left the future looking bleak for Villa’s young lions. It was even suggested at one point that the academy should be shut down. What a mistake that would’ve been!
Now though, under the ownership of NSWE and the guidance of CEO Christian Purslow, the club has accelerated into a new era of youth development. With Bodymoor Heath undergoing a major revamp and a greater emphasis put on purchasing and developing the best up-and-coming talent in the country, it’s no wonder the future has never looked so bright for those looking to force their way into the first team. With 3 new deals handed out in recent days, Villa’s academy continues to pose an exciting proposition for young footballers looking to ply their trade…
Last week the club announced professional contracts for centre backs Sil Swinkels and Aaron O’Reilly and goalkeeper Oliwier Zych. They are following in the footsteps of many of their peers, both in the under 18’s and under 23’s, who have penned new deals at the club.
Signed from Vitesse Arnhem, Swinkels himself played a pivotal role in helping the club win the under 18 FA Youth Cup back in May. The 17-year-old centre half made 4 appearances throughout the competition including a commanding, rock-solid performance in the final against Liverpool. He also made his competitive senior debut last season in the 4-1 FA Cup defeat to Liverpool in January following an outbreak of COVID in the Villa first team camp. Standing at 6”3, the defender has a bright future ahead under the guidance of manager Dean Smith and we could easily see him lining up for Villa in the Premier League in years to come.
Zych, signed from Lubin in his native Poland, made just one appearance in the FA Youth Cup, keeping a clean sheet in the 3-0 triumph over Brighton in the fourth round. He made 19 appearances for the under 18’s keeping 2 clean sheets in the process. The young pole will be one to keep an eye on for the under 18’s this season.
Aaron O’Reilly is not a name that immediately comes to the forefront of many supporters’ minds. Having arrived from St Patrick’s Athletic at the age of 16, he has managed just 8 games for the under 18’s. However, I firmly believe that he has what it takes to climb up the ranks at Aston Villa and it should be noted that Dean and his coaching team have seen something in Aaron that enticed them to offer him a professional contract. We will certainly see much more of him in the under 18’s next season.
While many are talking about the meteoric rise of Carney Chukwuemeka and the impressive pre-season of Jaden Philogene-Bidace, it is important to remember that the club has many more young stars coming through hot on their tails.
Villa have been very active in the current transfer window but not just at senior level. Several high-calibre young players have been scouted and signed by Johan Lange and his team, with one eye on establishing the best and most productive academy in the country.
With the aim for players to be playing at a higher age group than their current age, this helps accelerate the transition of youth team players into senior football. The goal is for 16 and 17-year-olds to be regularly playing at under 18 levels and those who are 18 or 19 to either be playing in the under 23’s or attempting to break into the first team.
Villa’s under 18’s will attempt to consolidate their FA Youth Cup win with the new additions of Kyrie Pierre from Bristol Rovers, Ajani Burchall from Bournemouth and Josh Feeney from Fleetwood Town. Each player has been handpicked by the scouting team with the belief that they are the next generation’s golden boys. Burchall made his first-team debut at the age of 16 against Huddersfield in the Championship last season, while Villa landing Josh Feeney was seen as quite a coup, beating off the likes of Manchester United for his signature. He also captains England at under 16 level.
A player who could soon be joining Carney and Jaden in first-team training is 18-year-old new boy Tim Iroegbunam. A strong, combative midfielder, Iroegbunam embodies exactly what Villa are missing in the first team currently. It has been said that for much of last season, Villa’s midfield was bypassed too easily by our opponents, and this is what led to us conceding many of our goals in the second half of the season. While this may be a bold prediction, I believe that the coaching team have identified him as a future first-team midfield enforcer based on the qualities he has displayed at his previous club, West Bromwich Albion.
The young midfielder played an abundance of youth football last term, playing 25 games in the under 18 Premier League, scoring twice and racking up 3 assists.