The astonishing case of Clark's quick learners
Aston Villa may be languishing in the lower reaches but no one in the top flight can beat their youth policy
In purely financial terms, this afternoon's game at Chelsea promises to be one of the greatest mismatches of the season. If Aston Villa stick by the players who won 3-1 at Liverpool last Saturday, they will be fielding a side that cost some £15 million; the total expenditure on their opponents, depending on who plays, will be at least 10 times that and quite possibly as much as £200m. Similarly, while not one of those Chelsea players was home-grown – for all the money lavished on their youth system – Villa will field five or six products of what was recently ranked the No 1 academy in the Premier League.
The League tables, of course, do not make allowances for such discrepancies, any more than they deduct points for debt; and so Villa have to acknowledge that with Tottenham to come on Boxing Day in the second of their holiday fixtures, they could again be perilously close to the bottom three by the middle of the week.
It is, however, a matter of justifiable pride that they should be leading the way in bringing through their own players, almost 75 of whom have gone on to appear in the Premier League, the Football League or overseas since the current academy system was established 14 years ago – and 15 of them becoming full internationals.
When as many as half a team of similar age step on to the pitch having grown up together, there is a clear benefit, as one of them, the current captain, Ciaran Clark, explained at the training ground.
"We've come through the youth teams and reserves, won youth and reserve leagues, we're good mates and know each other's games well," he said. "We got to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup as well so it was a successful group, and we've added to that now with some new signings like Christian [Benteke] who's 22, Matt Lowton, 23, Ashley Westwood, 22. They've mixed in well and it's like they were already with us, it's like one big team. That can only be good for the future and for the team."
Clark, only 23, has taken the armband worn at the start of the season by Darren Bent, one of several expensive senior players who have found their youngers – and betters? – nudging them aside. It is a radical transformation from the days of recent managers Alex McLeish and Gérard Houllier, let alone Martin O'Neill, whose disillusionment with the owner Randy Lerner's tight fiscal policies prompted him to walk out two years ago.
Yet Paul Lambert, this year's manager, has bought into it, going out of his way to praise the youthful back three of Clark, Chris Herd and Nathan Baker he has used for the past four games in a run of six unbeaten. "Those three have been brilliant of late, they really have," he said. "It all bodes well for the future for this football club and for the players themselves."
Clark, having been at the club since the age of 11 – although he is a Home Counties boy and Republic of Ireland international – believes a successful academy can be almost self-fulfilling in attracting youngsters and clearly showing the rewards available: "Over the years it's been brilliant, [producing] Gareth Barry, the Moore brothers [Stefan and Luke], [Liam] Ridgewell, Gary Cahill, who'll probably be playing against us at the weekend. The academy staff must be doing a great job with the number of lads coming through.
"There's hope now for everyone, even lads in the Under-12s and 13s. They can see a lot of young lads coming through and they must be thinking they've got a real chance here, which can only be good."
As is often the case, there are unsung heroes involved, foremost among them the remarkable Bryan Jones, a former schoolteacher who was originally in charge of youth development as long ago as 1980 and has been head of the academy since 1998. Under recent new rules he is now allowed to take players aged 14 from all over the country, though he laments the lack of football in schools and wonders how any club are supposed to divine the potential of a five or six-year-old.
"The new system will create greater access to players and we'll remain fully committed to creating the right environment," Jones explained. "We try to do things the right way at Aston Villa and our academy is a vibrant symbol of the values we espouse."
Today Clark could be the only outfield survivor of the team that faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge a year ago (when they won 3-1). He said: "We're all young, we've got years ahead of us and it would be nice if we could all stay together at the club and build on that."
Inevitably there will be some harsh lessons along the way. Villa conceded four goals to Southampton and five to Manchester City, as well as losing after leading Manchester United 2-0. The current run, which has also brought them a Capital One Cup semi-final against Bradford City, suggests that they are quick learners.
Chelsea v Aston Villa is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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