How the Aston Villa ship is being steadied by Crewe recruit Ashley Westwood
Sunday 20 October 2013
There is a long list of players who honed their talents at Crewe Alexandra before making their mark in the top flight of English football, from David Platt to Danny Murphy, via Geoff Thomas, Neil Lennon and Robbie Savage – and those are just the midfielders.
A new name to add to the list is Ashley Westwood, the young Aston Villa midfielder, who as a boy would view the photos of the famous graduates on display at the Cheshire club without ever imagining he would one day follow the same trail.
"I never thought I'd go on to play in the Premier League," confesses Westwood, who was six years old when he embarked on his schooling under Dario Gradi, Crewe's long-serving director of football. "You're aware of what players Crewe have brought through, the pictures are on the wall.
"But Dario never puts pressure on you as a player, he lets you go out and play. At Crewe it doesn't matter how old you are – if you're good enough, you're going to get your chance."
It is a philosophy that explains Gradi's place on Greg Dyke's new Football Association Commission – "it is a great appointment, I think it should have happened years ago," says Westwood – and as the debate continues over the limited opportunities afforded domestic players in the Premier League, where imports account for two-thirds of all the minutes played, he counts his blessings to have a manager in Paul Lambert who was willing to take a £2m gamble on a League One youngster.
"The gaffer has been brilliant with that, bringing young lads in and giving them a chance," says Westwood. "I never thought I'd have played as many games in the Premier League as I have done. I'd have been happy playing bit-parts here and there but I played a lot last year and I want to play even more this year."
He eventually made 30 Premier League appearances in 2012-13 as an inexperienced Villa side fought a successful fight against relegation. The step-up provided some surprises – the speed of training for a start – and he admits to an early moment of self-doubt. "I played half a game against Southampton and I didn't do very well and I thought, 'Am I really ready for this?'," he says.
"The next thing, you're playing Man Utd [in his first start at Villa Park] and you look in the tunnel and next to you you've got [star] players and you think, 'Wow, I'm here' and then you just go out and play your game. You don't see what's in front of you."
That was a long way from his first taste of senior football at Nantwich Town, his home-town club where he went on loan at 18, playing three tiers below the Football League.
"It hits home that you've got to put the work in. In those leagues you don't get a second on the ball, it is 100 miles an hour. It stands you in good stead – it's completely different from youth and reserve-team football. You go into the changing rooms, there's two showers and everyone's under one shower. It's not the glamorous lifestyle people think."
Westwood, who attracts barely a second glance as he takes his seat in the cafe where we meet, has an unassuming manner that matches his role on the pitch. Unlike a previous Villa recruit from Crewe, the free-scoring Platt, the 23-year-old is a defensive midfielder playing an unsung role in the heart of Lambert's promising young side.
"My job is to try and protect the back four," Westwood explains. "It helps when the lads behind you talk and tell you what you're doing, then it makes my job 10 times easier. We're starting that now; we're a real team now."
Villa have kept two clean sheets in their last three games – an encouraging statistic after 26 League fixtures without one – and against Tottenham today Westwood expects no repeat of Spurs' 4-0 victory at Villa Park last Boxing Day.
"All the younger lads are a year on, we've got a lot more experience and there's a real team bond now. I think we've shown with the start of the season that we've had – we're the only team to have beaten [Arsenal] and we've beaten Man City at home. We are ready to mix it with anyone now. We don't want what happened last year again – we want to be looking above, rather than down."
The presence of Andros Townsend in the visitors' ranks today backs up his belief in the quality of homegrown players, not just at Villa but elsewhere – "a lot of the English lads are technically good enough" – and he applauds England manager Roy Hodgson's decision to give the Spurs winger a chance in the national side.
"It gives a lot of players hope," he says, before citing the credentials of his midfield colleague Fabian Delph. "He's got more or less everything – he can run with the ball, he beats players, he tackles, he can pass, he has got a great engine."
In short, young, talented and English – just like Westwood.
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