Ashley Young is now 37-years-old, but still proving to be a welcome addition at Villa Park for the second time in his career.
Words by Andy Bates | @k2_villa
Amidst all the comings and goings at Bodymoor Health this summer, there was one deal which went somewhat under the radar, but was greeted with a collective feeling of warmth from the Villa faithful.
As Villa returned for their first day back at training, way back in June, the sight of a smiling Ashley Young, striding back into reception, proclaiming “I’m back” to the camera, came as a welcome bit of pre-season feel good factor.
There had been some uncertainty as whether Young would extend his stay, particularly when the club published the list of players who had been released at the end of their contract, a few weeks previous. The eagle eyed amongst the fans had pointed out, that this would have been a somewhat clinical end to a distinguished Villa career, stretching back to 2007, encompassing two spells at the club, particularly given that Conor Hourihane – also on the list – had received a poignant and much deserved farewell, over the Villa media channels.
The former Manchester United captain made his intriguing return to Aston Villa in the summer of 2021, when Dean Smith swooped to beat Burnley to his signature, which was expected to be a season long Premier League swansong. It was a move which tugged on the heartstrings of the Villa followership, who had previously adored the ‘flying winger’ version of Young, who was so integral to the relative success of Martin O’Neill’s team during that period.
The fact that he is two years older than former partner in crime Gabby Agbonlahor – now five years retired and regurgitating his football wisdom on TalkSport radio – yet is still performing on the highest stage of English football, is testament to his dedication to his career.
In his time away from B6, Young had however gone onto greater things, first with Manchester United, winning the league title in 2013, before adding the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League to his medal collection. Then, a somewhat surprising move to Inter Milan, saw Young become a big part of Antonio Conte’s side who won the Serie A title, just weeks before re-joining Villa. Add to this his very decent England career, which included being part of the team that reached the semi-final at Russia 2018, which at the time was England’s best performance in a major tournament since Euro 96.
It was a difficult start to Young’s second stint, as Smith’s team fell to an opening day defeat, at another of his former clubs, Watford, before the team went on a run of five losses in October and November, which saw the end of the manager’s iconic three year tenure. However, as Young’s ex England teammate Steven Gerrard was appointed as the club’s new head coach, he became a supporting influence in that transition, playing an important role in an upturn in form.
In fact, it was Gerrard’s first game in charge at home to Brighton, where Young’s introduction from the bench was the catalyst for a 2-0 victory, as he rolled back the years leading a quick break up the pitch, culminating in a fierce strike from Ollie Watkins to put Villa ahead.
He has undoubtedly been a steadying and reliable influence within the dressing room, as well as a lieutenant for Gerrard, if not a regular starter or contributor on the field. This was highlighted this summer, when having committed to the club for another year, he was awarded with the club captaincy, in the controversial reshuffle which saw John McGinn replace Tyrone Mings as the regular skipper.
It would be hard to question Young’s suitability for the role. He is by some distance the most experienced and decorated member of the squad and whilst the likes of Phillipe Coutinho and Emi Martinez have played alongside some of the world’s best players, they would certainly look on Ashley Young as a professional to look up to an learn from, particularly if they are hoping for an extended career at the top of the game. With Gerrard seemingly attempting to recreate a captain in his own image, with McGinn’s appointment, the Scot could do worse than lean on Young to tap into his wealth of knowhow and gravitas.
Much of the discourse around the new contract was focussed around Young’s advancing years, now 37 and whether he ‘has the legs’ to continue to compete in the way that Villa need. The season has started poorly and with Gerrard facing the prospect of being ousted so early into his tenure, he is most certainly not in a position to accommodate passengers. The lacklustre displays prior to the Manchester City draw at Villa Park, have forced Gerrard to take a more pragmatic view of his style of play and who he trusts to implement it.
It was therefore telling, that when Matty Cash pulled up injured in the City game, that the man he turned to, so early in the game to keep the likes of Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne in check, was Ashley Young, ahead of Callum Chambers and new signing Jan Bednarek. And why not? That is the company he has kept throughout his career, amongst the elite of international football. He was never going to be phased by that challenge. This was encapsulated in one moment, as he comfortably outpaced and dispossessed De Bruyne, before turning and setting up an impressive Villa counter attack, to a huge roar from the Holte End.
It was one of those inexplicably spinetingling moments in the stands, where something happens to connect the supporters to the team. Anyone who is a regular at Villa Park would admit that this has not been a feature, certainly since home town hero Jack Grealish left last summer. Young though, appeared to be the conduit for that collective energy, which lifted a previously flat mood of resignation, to one which believed again.
Young undoubtedly contributed hugely to the performance and subsequent result against Man City, as Villa finally found a springboard for their season. He not only led by example in terms of his commitment to the cause, but played with such quality and focus, to subdue the City stars, that leaves one wishing he was 5 years younger.
Young would certainly have kept his place for the following game away to Leicester City, had the game not been postponed, due to the sad passing of Her Majesty The Queen and the period of national mourning which has followed. Indeed, once Villa take the field again on this upcoming Friday, it seems that Matty Cash will not be ready to return – with Young expected to start against Southampton.
Ultimately, Gerrard needs leaders and players of high quality, which Young undoubtedly is. The question mark will remain over a 37 year old’s ability to consistently perform at the level and intensity required, but it will be a huge boost to be able to call on Young in a variety of positions, when required.
As for the fans, in particular those of us who were dazzled by him the first time around, lets make the most of every moment that Ashley Young dons the claret and blue, as he remains one of Aston Villa’s favourite adopted sons.