Earlier this week Aston Villa announced that Mark Harrison would be taking over at the club as Academy Manager – but what can fans expect?
Words by Simon Lines
Aston Villa announced this week that Mark Harrison has joined the club as the new Academy Manager. Harrison joins Aston Villa from West Bromwich Albion, where he has been for over a decade, helping to develop the club’s young academy talent.
Christian Purslow, Chief Executive of Aston Villa commented:
“Aston Villa is a club steeped in a rich tradition of producing it’s own players.
Mark’s appointment is another cornerstone of the process and journey that we set out upon last summer.
As a club, we want a clear pathway right through the academy to the first team with outstanding recruitment and development.
I have every confidence that Mark, working closely with Dean Smith and Jesus Garcia Pitarch, will build an excellent academy that will be able to nurture the next generation of stars to entertain the crowds at Villa Park.“
Harrison had been the Academy Manager at The Hawthorns since 2006 and worked closely alongside the Baggies’ Head of Academy recruitment, Steve Hopcroft.
They have overseen a number of players making the break-through into the Albion first-team, such as Sam Field, Kyle Edwards, Jonathan Leko and Rekeem Harper. It’s also believed that the Baggies have more to come in the pipe-line with Louie Barry, Morgan Rogers, Rayaan Tulloch and Jamie Soule impressing at various age levels.
There are others who have come through the West Bromwich Albion academy whilst Harrison has been in charge, including Tyler Roberts and Kemar Roofe, now of Leeds United. There’s also Romaine Sawyers, who was a vital cog in Dean Smith’s Brentford side before he took the reigns at Villa Park, and Izzy Brown who has had numerous loan spells since his transfer to Chelsea in 2013.
West Brom’s academy system has had a remarkable rise over the last decade. Immediately following relegation, West Bromwich Albion announced they had ‘exhausted their funds’ by spending almost £60,000,000 on new players and increased wages in the season that resulted in their return to League football – which highlighted the importance of moulding your own players and testing them in the blood and thunder of the Sky Bet Championship.
Only a few hours following that announcement, West Bromwich Albion played in their first FA Youth Cup Semi-Final for 41 years, eventually losing 4-2 to a Manchester City side boasting three former Barcelona youngsters and two other overseas recruits. In contrast, West Brom’s side included just one player who was from outside the West Midlands.
The Baggies gained their Category One academy status in 2012 after investing heavily in coaching, medical, sports science and recruitment staff. They also laid a new UEFA standard pitch next to the club’s indoor training area.
It was highlighted how well the West Bromwich Albion youth system is working in the recent Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi Final against Aston Villa. With key players such as Dwight Gayle and Gareth Barry missing, Jay Rodriguez limping off and Chris Brunt getting sent off late in the first 90, Albion had to turn to some of their youth talent. In the end, Aston Villa’s experienced paid off, but Albion finished the tie with Rekeem Harper and Jonathan Leko on the pitch, and Jonathan Bond also on the bench.
Aston Villa have been going through a transitional period within the academy in recent years. The likes of Bryan Jones, Gordon Cowans and Tony McAndrew have retired, whilst Sean Verity, Stuart Taylor and Ben Petty have moved on into other roles. Mark Delaney has stepped up into the Under 23’s coaching role, whilst David Hughes replaced Tony McAndrew ad Under 18’s manager.
Sean Kimberley replaced Bryan Jones as Aston Villa’s Academy Director in 2014. Since then, numerous first team managerial changes have not helped the academy system, along with a further two changes of ownership and two different Sporting Directors.
The Under 23’s and Under 18’s have remained competitive, but perhaps has not produced as regular as Aston Villa once did. The club are looking for the next Jack Grealish or Gabriel Agbonlahor, but they have been few and far between.
Kimberley departed Aston Villa earlier this year, and Aston Villa have been conducting a full root branch operation to determine how they’ve wanted to progress. The board, and Jesus Garcia Pitarch, along with Head Coach Dean Smith, want all teams throughout the club to be playing the same, attractive football, an idea that has floated around before but never seemed to come off.
With the hopeful stability of the new owners, along with the Chief Executive and Sporting Director, Aston Villa now have a chance to implement this, with the hugely impressive Mark Harrison heading this up.
Expect more changes to come in the next few months, in terms of coaching personnel and player personnel, in the hope Aston Villa can continue to be known as one of the country’s well respected academy systems.