Ashley Young: Meet Stevenage's second greatest sporting prodigy
He is Villa's star winger – and one of Fabio Capello's favourites for the future. So is Ashley Young finally escaping the shadow of schoolmate Lewis Hamilton?
Monday 06 October 2008
The England manager Fabio Capello was at Stamford Bridge yesterday, not least, hours before announcing his squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Kazakhstan and Belarus, to check on the in-form Ashley Young. The same Ashley Young who, aged 16, was sent by his teachers at the John Henry Newman School in Stevenage for the obligatory consultation with a careers officer.
He went grudgingly, protesting with every nuance of body language. The youth-team coaches at Watford FC had just refused him a full-time football scholarship, but they saw enough promise to invite him for training twice a week, as long as he stayed on at school to tackle his A levels.
To Young, this amounted to a rejection, but it didn't raise the slightest doubt in his mind that he was good enough to become a professional footballer. He knew that he would prove the Watford coaches wrong.
So he sat down in the careers office and watched with a mixture of amusement and irritation as the woman on the other side of the desk earnestly assessed his four GCSEs, in English, PE, geography and German. He still doesn't know how he got German, incidentally. He can't speak a word.
"What do you want to do when you leave school, Ashley?"
"I wanna be a footballer."
As Young now recalls the exchange, there was a moment's silence while she stared at him. "Yes," she said, eventually, "but what if that doesn't work?"
"It's gonna work," he said flatly. "There's nothing else I wanna do."
A sigh. "But you've got to be realistic, Ashley. There must be something else that appeals to you?"
"There isn't. I just wanna play football." If Young's life were ever to be dramatised for the screen, that encounter with the school careers officer would dissolve into an episode six years later, on a Friday morning at the end of August 2007: a six-series BMW is whizzing along a dual carriageway between the West Midlands town of Stourbridge and the Aston Villa training ground just outside Sutton Coldfield. Young is at the wheel, when his mobile starts ringing. He pulls over.
"Hello, is that Ashley?"
"Ashley, it's Steve McClaren."
"Are you sure?"
It still embarrasses Young that he asked the caller whether he was sure that he was Steve McClaren. Still, the then England manager took it in his stride. "Yeah, yeah, it's Steve McClaren. Look, you've been doing really well, and my squad's announced at 12 today but I like to tell players beforehand if they're going to be involved. So congratulations. There'll be someone in touch soon to deal with the details."
The BMW stayed in the lay-by for another 20 minutes, while Young phoned his father, and then his mother, and listened to their laughter and tears. He had already played for the Under-21s but they knew that the summons to play for the senior England team was the culmination of dreams he'd had since he was little more than a toddler. Eventually, he floated to the training ground, in so far as a BMW can float, "and I had a big smile on my face, but I didn't say nothing to anyone. Then the manager come to me because England have to send a fax to the club. He was really pleased for me."
For himself too, no doubt. Martin O'Neill had paid almost £10m for Young, which at the time – January 2007 – was considered a questionable bit of business. Not any more. Young, one of only two players from outside the "Big Four" clubs to feature in last year's PFA Premier League team of the season (the other was Portsmouth's David James), has been flying again this season, his jiggery-pokery on the left wing one of the reasons why Villa sit so close to the top of the Premier League. Which is why the same eyebrows which were raised when O'Neill paid Watford so much money for him, shot up again when Capello overlooked him in the squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Croatia.
"Yeah, I was a little bit disappointed," Young says. It is surely an understatement. How did he find out that he wasn't about to add to his three England caps? "I got a phone call." From Capello? "From the person who deals with all the details, I don't want to say who. Anyway, the thing is to get on with my club football. If I do well for my club, I will get recognition."
Yesterday, that recognition seemed certain to come. Rejection has always stiffened Young's resolve to succeed, and indeed within a year of turning him down for a scholarship Watford were offering him professional terms. I'm sure, I say, that the careers adviser was delighted for him. "Yeah," he says, looking unconvinced.
We are sitting in a press-conference room at the Villa training-ground, which is practically within earshot of The Belfry, where Europe's best golfers are, on the day we meet, competing in the British Masters for a prize fund of £1.8m.
There are reminders everywhere in this leafy corner of the West Midlands that sporting excellence gets fantastic remuneration, not least in the jewelled accessories worn by the 23-year-old man in front of me. Young is wearing a huge Franck Muller watch that must have set him back the cost of a large family saloon – "It was a birthday present to myself," he tells me – and a diamond earring in each ear. He also tells me that he is building a property portfolio – "Abroad, up north and down south," which pretty much covers the spectrum – to sustain him when his footballing career is over.
Yet the extraordinary thing is that Young is not the most successful sportsman from his year at John Henry Newman School: that distinction belongs to a young man almost exactly six months older, Lewis Hamilton.
For some reason, and as other interviewers have found, Young turns instantly sullen, almost hostile, when Hamilton's name comes up. Lewis played alongside you in the school football team? "Yeah." Was he a decent player? "He was OK." You didn't care for him much, did you (a wild guess on my part, in the hope it might generate a little more animation)? "Erm, I tend not to talk about it. He's doing what he's doing, I'm doing what I'm doing."
We move on. I ask him about his upbringing. "I had three brothers, one older, two younger. My dad worked in the IT industry, although I haven't got a clue what he did. He always tells me but it just goes over my head. He's Jamaican-born – we still have some family out there – and my mum is English. They still travel up and down the country, trying to get to games. They've always backed us 100 per cent in whatever we've wanted to do."
Football is what he wanted to do from the time he joined Stevenage Colts, as a five-year-old. "Everything that moved, I was kicking it. You can ask my mum and dad. A stone, a can, whatever." A brother? He laughs, obligingly. My temerity in raising Hamilton's name has been forgiven, if not forgotten. "Yeah, I used to kick my younger brother around the house."
Following his older brother's lead, he became a devoted Arsenal fan. "My dad supported Tottenham, but my hero, my role model on and off the pitch, was Ian Wright. I was a centre-forward too. There was one season I scored 64 goals. I once scored eight in one game. It was a five-a-side competition and we had to win 13-0." A chuckle. "We won it 14-0."
I ask whether he still considers himself, deep down, an Arsenal fan? "No, you drop that as soon as you turn pro. They're just another team. Although the away grounds I enjoy playing at most are the Emirates and Old Trafford." It is the latter where he normally faces the bigger challenge. "Wes Brown is the defender who gives me most trouble," he concedes. "I played against him twice in the league and the Carling Cup as well last season, and I didn't get no change out of him. His reading of the game is excellent and he likes to get forward as well, so I have to track back unless I can pass him over to the left back, and as a winger you don't want to be going that way."
It was Young's attacking instincts as a 10-year-old, playing for the Stevenage district team, that alerted the Watford scouts. He made his first-team debut eight years later, during Ray Lewington's tenure as manager, coming on as a substitute against Millwall and promptly scoring.
But it was Aidy Boothroyd, in the 2005-06 season, who first recognised what the club had in Young. The youngster started 41 matches on the way to promotion to the Premier League, and scored 15 goals, although he made an even bigger impact with his assists, among them the corner which led to the opening goal in the play-off final, when Watford thumped Leeds United 3-0.
"Aidy gave me licence to just go out there and play," Young says. "He had similar man-management skills to Martin O'Neill. They both know how to treat players. They give you confidence." Neither Boothroyd nor Young, however, could keep Watford in the top tier the following season. So it was not quite as a proven Premier League performer that he arrived at Villa, and of course it was a huge step up in terms of the size of the club. I want to know how a lad of 21 deals with such a move, and whether the fee felt like a burden.
"No, the fee was only an issue for the press. But yeah, this is a much bigger club, and the people behind the scenes were fantastic. I was in a hotel for literally two days and then I moved into an apartment while I looked for a permanent place." While he looked, or while someone looked on his behalf?
"No, yeah, well, it was the welfare officer at the club, Lorna. Any of the boys will tell you, she's brilliant. You tell her where you want to live and she'll find you all the good areas. She came back after a couple of days with a few apartments for me to look at."
It also helps, I suppose, that the manager has such avuncular qualities. O'Neill, says Young, "gets the best out of all his players by just having a quiet word here and there. He gives us freedom, and for me as a winger that's a dream. But you don't ever step out of line with him."
Has Young, one of the livelier personalities in the dressing room, ever been on the receiving end of an O'Neill bollocking? "Touch wood, no. I've seen them, though. But even when we lost at home to QPR [in the Carling Cup 12 days ago] he didn't shout. He's calm most of the time." And what, among the manager and players, is the realistic ambition at Villa this term? "To finish higher than we did last season [which was sixth]. Though if you offered me fourth I'd probably bite your hand off."
I'm sure. And just think, Champions League football for Ashley Young and a world championship for Lewis Hamilton: what a double that would be for John Henry Newman School, Stevenage. Sensibly, I keep the thought firmly to myself.
Ashley Young by Numbers
15 goals Scored by Young for Aston Villa in 63 games following his move from Watford in January 2007.
25 assists Young has contributed during his time with the Villains.
3 England caps Young made his debut as a substitute in the win against Austria last November, his other two games also ending in victories.
£9.65 m Cost of the midfielder when Martin O'Neill brought him to Villa Park from Vicarage Road last year.
2 brothers Number of Young's siblings currently enrolled in the Watford Academy system, Lewis and Kyle.
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