You would have to go a long way to find a young footballer with a stronger connection to his club than the one Marc Albrighton has with Aston Villa.
He joined at the age of eight, he watched them from the stands as a child and this season he has emerged as their most promising young talent.
In fact, the Villa gene runs deep in the family. When our conversation turns to Villa history and what the club means to him, Albrighton tilts his head towards a picture on the training ground wall of Dennis Mortimer with the European Cup and mentions that his father Terry, from whom he inherited his Villa loyalties, was in Rotterdam on that famous night of the final in 1982. "He always says it was one of the best days of his life."
Much has changed at Villa this season – the manager Martin O'Neill is the most significant departure and James Milner has gone too – but one consistent feature has been the performances of Albrighton, a skilful and industrious right-winger who will get the toughest examination of his credentials today against Ashley Cole when the champions Chelsea visit Villa Park.
Given his chance under the caretaker Kevin MacDonald at the start of the season, Albrighton has held his place in the team under Villa's new manager Gérard Houllier. Albrighton's story is the one that every Premier League club would like to replicate with their academy youngsters: that of a local boy breaking into the first team of his childhood club and loving every minute of it.
Albrighton is not 21 until next month but he has already been at Villa for 13 years, developed along with a batch of players, including Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark, of whom the club have high hopes. Houllier had the good fortune to join Liverpool when the likes of Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen were blossoming and he may just have struck lucky again.
It is early days yet but it is refreshing to hear a young player talk with such passion about his club. He relates the story told to him by his dad about the 1982 European Cup final with relish. He has seen Peter Withe's winner against Bayern Munich on ESPN Classic more times than he cares to remember but nothing beats the first-hand account he got from his father. "My dad went over with the travelling support on my mum's birthday - that was just the way the dates fell," Albrighton says.
"He said the whole atmosphere was unreal. Not just in the stadium but the days before, outside the ground before the game and actually in the ground. Nobody expected them to win and even when they were 1-0 up, I think that was the only shot they had all game but it paid off and they got the result.
"That European Cup win does mean a lot to Villa. It is the best thing that has ever happened to the club so if that was your era as a fan then they are lucky to have seen that."
Albrighton grew up watching Villa with his father, first as a paying fan in the Doug Ellis Stand and then, when he signed as a child, as a guest of the club. "We were given two free tickets for every home game so for me and my dad being Villa fans that was perfect. We sat behind the dugout – it was John Gregory who was manager at the time and all you could hear was him shouting at Mark Delaney every single game.
"I really liked Dean Saunders and I think I had his name on the back of my first ever Villa shirt. I liked David Ginola and Benito Carbone. He was only here one season. I remember him against Leeds in the FA Cup when he scored a hat-trick.
"That is the best memory I have got of him. I just remember watching him that day and thinking 'Wow, he is some player'."
Albrighton was playing in Tamworth for his local team the Mile Oak Monarchs when he was spotted by the late Villa scout Clive Lyons, the man he credits with helping him to find his feet at the club. Even now he still lives at home with his parents in Tamworth, close enough to the training ground to make it a quick journey in the morning.
He made his debut against CSKA Moscow in that Uefa Cup game in February 2009 in which O'Neill was criticised for picking a weakened team. His Premier League debut was the first game of last season – a 2-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic at home – but not until MacDonald picked him to start against West Ham on the first day of this season and subsequently stuck with him has he had a run in the team.
His goal against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in the 2-1 defeat for Villa there before the international break has been the personal highlight of a season in which he has also scored his first goal for the England Under-21s. He grew up playing as a striker but was switched to the wing by the Villa coach – and another hero of 1982 – Gordon Cowans.
"When I was in the Under-14s everybody seemed to be growing around me and the centre-halves were twice my size," Albrighton says. "I was still the same height. It was Gordon Cowans, who was my coach at the time, who said he wanted to try me on the wing. I went out on the wing and impressed in a few games and I have stayed there ever since but I still play the odd game up front for the reserves if they need an emergency striker. I can still do a job there.
"If you look at some of the best players in the world they are small. Lionel Messi is the perfect example – probably the best young player in the world at the minute and he is smaller than me. Here at Villa we have Barry Bannan. He is really small but technically he is probably the best player at the club. He will have a really bright future. I don't think size really matters if you can play football."
It is evident that the values that have been instilled in him during his years at the academy have had an effect. More than once during the interview he refers to the Villa way of doing things that is taught to all their young players. "It is a family club and everyone is polite and kind around the place and you come to expect that when you are at Villa," he says. The imperative of chasing back and tackling was "drilled into me" he says, from the moment he joined.
He smiles at the memory of the Under-18s coach Tony McAndrew and the demands he made of him as a teenager. "He doesn't give you a minute to settle," Albrighton says. "You are on your toes whether you are walking up the stairs to get your dinner or on the pitch. He makes you do it to the best of your ability. At some points I was thinking, 'Is he picking on me?', but he just gets the best out of a player."
Most of all there is real affection for MacDonald, whose future at the club is the subject of some doubt after Houllier was appointed ahead of him for the manager's job. "I kept my place after the game against Newcastle [which Villa lost 6-0]," Albrighton says. "I would be the first one to admit I had a poor game that day but I have got to thank him [MacDonald] for keeping faith in me because some managers would have thought, 'One bad game, maybe he is not ready'. Kev gave me another chance and hopefully it has paid off."
As a Villa supporter, Albrighton was at Wembley in 1996 to see the club win their last trophy, the League Cup against Leeds United. "I remember Savo Milosevic scoring and some geezer about three seats behind me jumped down and kissed me. It was madness in the crowd. That was a great day for the club." He was also there for the FA Cup final defeat four years later at the hands of Chelsea.
The departure of O'Neill does not seem to rank highly among his concerns, perhaps given his loyalty to O'Neill's immediate successor MacDonald, who had previously been his coach with the reserves. "It didn't have much of an effect on the players, no matter what manager it was. I think the players go out there as footballers and perform. That is all we can, do that is our job.
"It takes a lot to win a game on the pitch so all our focus has got to be on a Saturday afternoon or whenever we will be performing. We dealt with it very well. We probably didn't get a couple of results we should have done but we have played some good football no matter who it has been under.
"If you look at his [Houllier's] track record it is brilliant for bringing the young players through when he was at Liverpool. He brought Gerrard through. They don't come much better than that, do they? So I think it will be a good thing that he is here."
Albrighton has been watching Villa long enough to know that it will not happen overnight. He cannot remember exactly when he first watched a game as a fan at Villa Park but his earliest memory is of a 4-2 home win over Liverpool.
When I check the records later, that game turns out to have been in September 1992, before Albrighton's third birthday. He is just a young player – a talented one too – but where Villa are concerned he has been around a long time.
My Other Life
I play a lot of golf. If I am bored after training I will call a mate and pop down there. When I was younger I played off [a handicap of] 14. I am more of a fair-weather golfer, not so keen on these cold afternoons. The Hangover is my favourite film. I enjoyed David Beckham's autobiography.Reuse content