Aston Villa’s academy has in recent years, until now, failed. Things are changing at Bodymoor.
Words: Simon Lines | @simonlines
For many years, Aston Villa prided itself on it’s strong academy system and was renowned as one of the most efficient systems in England. Twenty years ago, Aston Villa were seen to be one of the most attractive clubs in English football for young scholars to join.
In the early 2000’s, the claret and blue of Birmingham were able to lure the likes of Gareth Barry and Mark Delaney to the Villa Academy from other clubs in the English pyramid, whilst the likes of Lee Hendrie and Darius Vassell, amongst others, graduated and went on to play Premier League football for the club, as well as being capped by England.
In the 1999/2000 season, the FA Premier Reserve League was founded and Aston Villa went on to dominate for a number of years and were title holders on five occasions between 2000 and 2011, whilst also being runners-up on a further two occasions.
Throughout the 2000’s, the likes of Stefan Moore, Luke Moore, Liam Ridgewell, Gary Cahill, Darius Vassell, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker and Jack Grealish all progressed through the academy and made a name for themselves in the senior set-up at Villa Park.
In 2012, the Premier League Reserve League, where Aston Villa had been dominant for so many years, was abolished to make way for the new Under-21 development league. The previous league mirrored the Premier League and so if a senior side was relegated, their second-string side were also removed from the Premier League’s reserve league.
This caused criticism as it wasn’t based on the reserve side’s ability and performance, rather judged on their more senior colleague’s performances. The new Under-21 Development League was set up and split into two divisions, League One and League Two, and then divided into Northern and Southern sections.
Aston Villa were placed into the Southern section of the league and subsequently relegated in 2013/14 as they won eight games out of a possible 21.
The side took a couple of seasons to adjust to life in the second tier of development football and missed out on a Play-Off Final to win promotion back to the first tier in 2015/16. The following season brought more changes as the maximum age of players rose from 21 to 23, and Villa have since battled it out to win promotion back to the first division, now titled ‘Premier League 1’.
Aston Villa have come close on a few occasions now, losing out in Play-Off Semi-Finals and Finals – but they were successful in winning the Premier League Cup in 2018 – beating Swansea City on penalties.
There has been criticism aimed towards the development set-up in England following the abolition of the FA Premier Reserve League. Since the change, many clubs have played their games behind closed doors at training centres, thus removing that experience of playing in front of crowds for the young players. There’s also the drop in excitement that could be found when first team players returned from injury, making their comebacks in the reserve side. This is rarely seen these days, and thus the league does not feel as competitive as it once was.
Throughout the nineties and 2000’s, Aston Villa had a strong academy set-up with longevity in the coaching ranks. The reserve team was led consistently by Kevin MacDonald. Tony McAndrew took control of the Youth Team, whilst the likes of Bryan Jones, Steve Burns, Gordon Cowans, Sean Kimberley, Ben Petty and Stuart Taylor were within the set-up.
Some of these names were highly experienced coaches and unfortunately for the Academy, many left at around the same time. Bryan Jones, who was the Head of the Academy retired in 2014 and was replaced by Sean Kimberley. Gordan Cowans served as a first team coach under Alex McLeish, but once Paul Lambert was appointed manager, he left the club and retired from coaching. Kevin MacDonald left to take up the Head Coach role at Swindon Town, but soon came back as Assistant Manager to Tim Sherwood in 2015, before moving back to his role as Under-23 Head Coach until 2019 when he was removed from his role due to bullying allegations.
Mark Delaney, who had assisted MacDonald, stepped up to the role of Under 23’s coach and the side have since challenged for honours in the past few years – but have failed to reach the levels that the club will have been hoping for.
More worryingly for the club, the players coming off the production line has halted in recent years, and this shows a lack of quality within the Academy set-up. Many players touted for a future at the club would be loaned out before eventually being released after the hierarchy could not see them progressing. Corey Blackett-Taylor, Callum O’Hare, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Harvey Knibbs, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Colin Odutayo, Dimitri Sea, Matija Sarkic, Mitch Clark, Jordan Lyden, Easah Suliman, Harry McKirdy and Kelsey Mooney are all prominent names that have failed to make a major impact at the club in recent years. Some of those players the club paid a fee for – and let’s not forget the Jacob Bedeau fiasco that saw the club pay nearly £1,000,000 for before he left for League Two on a free transfer just a season and a half later.
When Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens took majority control of Aston Villa, they set-out ambitious plans to turn Aston Villa into a side competing within the upper echelons domestically and in Europe.
One of the core objectives was to make the club sustainable, and that begins with working alongside young talent in the hope to provide top-quality footballers for the first team. This was started with the appointment of Jesus Garcia Pitarch, better known as ‘Suso’, in the Sporting Director Role. Whilst his time at the club came to an end last month, there was some fruitful progression within the Academy whilst he was in post.
The Academy moved into a brand-new building at Bodymoor Heath, and now have a purpose built stadium at the training ground where the development sides now play their home games.
The club also moved to appoint Mark Harrison as the new Head of Academy, alongside other recruits such as Mark Naylor, Ryan Maye and Mike Scott from near neighbours West Bromwich Albion. The recruitment pursuit of coaches from West Bromwich Albion makes sense for the club, due to their successful development of players such as Chris Wood, Saido Berahino, Izzy Brown, Nathan Ferguson and Louie Barry, the latter of whom making the move to Aston Villa via a brief stint at Barcelona.
Aston Villa have since been scouring the United Kingdom and Europe for the most talented youngsters that they can recruit, and have recently secured the signatures of highly rated youngsters Sil Swinkels, from Vitesse Arnhem, and Ben Chrisene from Exeter City – beating the likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Chelsea to Chrisene’s signature.
Moves like this are what the club had missed out on for many years, and thus contributed to Aston Villa’s decline in their academy over the last few years. They have also moved to keep huge talents that are already at the club, such as Carney Chukwuemeka and Jaden Philogene-Bidace, with new contracts.
With the likes of Harrison working alongside Villa’s new Sporting Director, Johan Lange, and with support from Chief Executive Christian Purslow and the owners, there is now once again real hope that Aston Villa can again become a force at Academy level and in the long-run provide top quality players who can thrive at the top level for Aston Villa’s first team, following in the footsteps of Jack Grealish.