Sam Wallace: Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner must be ready to dig deep to insure admirable youth policy

Takling Football: A reliance on youth has to be fortified at some point by investment

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The 30th anniversary of Aston Villa's 1982 European Cup final triumph passed without fanfare in May. Falling on the day of Roy Hodgson's first game as England manager there was not much room in the newspapers for the memories of Rotterdam. Strangely, of those six glorious years of consecutive wins in the competition for English clubs, it is 1982 that, outside Villa Park, tends to get overlooked.

They were once European champions, the team who this morning sit 17th in the Premier League. They have not fallen nearly as far as fellow former conquerors of Europe, Nottingham Forest, but whenever a cloud hangs over Aston Villa, as it does now, you find yourself asking the same question: where do Villa belong in the grand scheme of things?

They have won seven league championships, which places them a very respectable fifth on the all-time list behind Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. True, their first six were between 1894 and 1910 but they all count. Seven league championships is as many as Chelsea and Manchester City have won combined.

As it stands, Villa have a billionaire owner who has invested more than £200m since 2006 and seems reluctant to keep coming to the table. They have a £24m centre-forward on the bench. It was telling that a draw at home to 16th-placed Norwich City on Saturday was regarded as disappointing but, frankly not as bad as it could have been for a team now considered relegation candidates.

The change at Villa under the ownership of Randy Lerner since the last of three sixth-place finishes under Martin O'Neill, encompassing the Gérard Houllier and Alex McLeish reigns which did not work out for different reasons; the sale of players such as Gareth Barry, Ashley Young and James Milner; and, most recently the appointment of Paul Lambert, has brought the club to an interesting fork in its history.

The strategy now is a team built on young players from the academy, signings from the Football League and the occasional acquisition from "selling" European leagues such as the Netherlands (Ron Vlaar, Karim El Ahmadi) and Belgium (Christian Benteke). It has been the worst start to a league campaign in 43 years but let us leave the relegation anxiety aside for a moment.


Get Adobe Flash player


As a principle, Villa's promotion of young academy players is to be greatly admired. Yes, it is taking a while to see the results – and there are no guarantees – but goodness knows, we have despaired enough times at clubs who block the route of their youngsters with mediocre signings.

The average age of Saturday's Villa team was young – 24 years and four months, with three academy graduates in the first XI and a further three on the bench. Younger than Norwich (average: 26 years, six months) and younger than the Arsenal side on Saturday (average: 26), a club traditionally thought of as fielding young teams. The champions Manchester City's team average 25 years and 10 months.

Another three in Saturday's first XI, Joe Bennett, Matt Lowton and Fabian Delph, were bought from Football League clubs, so too substitute Ashley Westwood. If fashioning consistently good sides with young players and cheap signings was easy, let's face it, everyone would be doing it. That is no reason not to try – and good luck to Villa – but let us imagine one step further down the line.

Imagine that the likes of Chris Herd, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark, Eric Lichaj and Andreas Wiemann do flourish into a generation of players capable of holding their own in the Premier League. Imagine that Lambert turns this raw side of academy boys and Football League recruits into a decent top 10 force in the division. What then?

There is a principle in modern football that so many club owners and chairmen ignore when they reach for the utopian possibility of "youth". It is the principle that says you can be in danger of losing them just about as quickly as you produce them.

Take the example of Manchester City and Shaun Wright-Phillips. The sense of deflation at the club when he changed his mind more or less overnight and signed for Chelsea in 2005 will always resonate with me. Here was a player who had been rejected by Forest and, nurtured by City, became an England international. Chelsea signed him as a squad player simply because, well, they could.

Fast-forward seven years and the hundreds of millions that Sheikh Mansour has poured into City do not simply buy the likes of Sergio Aguero and Yaya Touré, they also insure City against losing the next great prospect who comes through their youth system (notwithstanding a contract refusenik like Daniel Sturridge). The top clubs, the wealthiest clubs, do not lose their best young players. The top clubs sign others' best young players.

For Villa, a reliance on youth has to be fortified at some point by investment, even if it is not at the level that Mansour has afforded City. Villa have outperformed many wealthier clubs in their academy and it is wonderful that so many have been given a chance. Of the next generation, the likes of Dan Crowley and Jack Grealish are rated as two outstanding prospects. But they cannot allow themselves to be too vulnerable to predators.

Villa will be under no illusions that producing the players alone will be hard, never mind keeping them. History suggests that the natural ebb and flow of talent through a club over the years mean that keeping up a steady supply of players ready to step up to the first team is extremely hard, however dedicated your academy coaches.

Yet even if Lerner seems to have hit on this new strategy as a cheaper alternative to his original it is one of the boldest experiments by an established top 10 club in years. At some point, it he is serious, Lerner will have to bolster it with some more investment but if it is even moderately successful then the modern Villa will have an identity as strong as any other.

Van der Meyde's exploits no match for Neville

Given that Andy Van der Meyde has a daughter named "Purple", perhaps we should not be too surprised at the revelations in his new autobiography that he played at Everton while indulging in a fairly comprehensive cocaine and booze habit. He says he also had a relationship with a "Liverpool stripper" (his description) but that is a whole different story.

In his book, Van der Meyde also derides the career of Phil Neville, whom he describes as "a snitch" and "a complete joke". Neville is still captaining a Premier League team at the age of 35. Van der Meyde is flogging a story of stealing prescription pills and wrecking his career. If Van der Meyde considers that the better alternative, one imagines Neville thinks his old team-mate is welcome to it.