‘Bannan to Gardner, Gardner shoots! Weimannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!’
Andres Weimann’s injury-time winner against Fulham at Villa Park last season was a goal fashioned and despatched by Villa youth. In short, those three points went a long way to saving Villa from relegation.
Now, one of the early defining factors in Paul Lambert’s reign as Villa manager is sorting out which of the younger players will finally shred their ‘youth’ tag and be classed as a senior player.
Earlier last season, as Villa’s injuries mounted and young players came in to fill some holes, eyebrow’s were raised first in our home game against Chelsea, when it was commented by the media that the average age of the team was 25; the youngest team fielded by Villa in years.When thinking about the potential of Villa’s crop of young players, such as Albrighton, Herd, Bannan, Gardner, Baker, Clark, and Weimann, the instinct is to think in terms of the future; that at least some of them will come good in a couple of years and at the moment, if needed, they can be used as scape goats.
Former Villa assistant manager Peter Grant, said as much in his interview on Talksport…hardly a confidence booster for the younger players.
But should they be used as an excuse? Some of them should be stepping up to the plate and taking more responsiblity already. Here’s why…
LEAGUE CHAMPION YOUNG STARS
Consider this…the average age of the 14 players that won Aston Villa the league title in 1980/81 was less than the team that played Chelsea at Villa Park last season.
Glancing over a recent article about Villa’s League winners of the 1980/1 season and regarding the list of the triumphant squad, it’s surprising how young a lot of the team were then. When you look back at history, we always think of them as the men and legends, that brought Villa the league title followed by the European Cup, the following season. Closer examination reveals that half of the team were the same age as the current crop of whom we still regard as one’s for the future.
I’d forgotten at the start of the 1980/1 season Gary Shaw was a mere 19-years-old (come on Weimann!), full-backs Gary Williams and Colin Gibson were both 20-years-old (Stevens and Ljaji are obviously ready to replace Hutton and Warnock now…), the cool and cultured head of Gordan Cowans was only 22-years-old (Bannan or Gardner, it’s time to step forward). Squad members David Geddis (22) and the late Eamonn Deacy (21) also brought a youthful glow to the set up.
The rock solid central defensive partnership of McNaught (25) and Evans (24) were also a few years shy of what is considered the peak of a centre-backs powers. While the midfield pair of Mortimer and Bremner were both under 30, with Jimmy Rimmer (32) and Peter Withe (30), the only members of the 30’s club.
The squad’s average age, if my maths serve me right, was 24.6-years-old.
While it is perhaps unfair to compare Villa gods with Villa mortals, it does offer some insight.
With Kevin MacDonald, the man responsible for the academy’s recent successes moving on, Paul Lambert now casts an unsentimental eyes on the potential of each of our former academy stars, tough decisions will be made more clinically on various player’s ability and their futures at the club.
To be honest, Villa’s younger players have stagnated when it comes to making an impression in the first team. Remember the Peace Cup? O’Neil had faith in the youngsters to throw them into the mix against the likes of Porto and Juventus, who both fielded decent teams in the tournament. Weimann, Bannan, Albrighton, Clark, Herd, all performed heroics in bettering De Piero, Buffon and co in the final. I’m sure a few Villa fans thought ‘The future really is bright!’ But that’s coming up to three years ago, and those players are only now starting to be trusted…or should I say, relied on.
In the season that followed the Peace Cup, O’Neil’s habit of sticking to the first 11 and rarely using substitutes, meant the promise shown by the youngsters, especially the likes of Albrighton and Bannan was stunted. A decent dose of substitute appearances would have helped them come on.
Weimann was in the starting line-up for the Peace Cup final vs Juventus, so why did he have to wait so long to get a taste of the first team? Gary Shaw was hitting 21 goals (18 in the league) aged 19. Weimann is already now a year older than that. Instead, successive Villa managers would rather play Emile Heskey, who never broke double-figures in his entire Villa career ( 9 goals in all competitions, a ratio of 1-in-10).
When the young players were thrown into the fray under Houllier and given responsibility, they tended to blossom. Albrighton made a useful contribution in assists and goals, and who will forget turning up at Villa Park and seeing the team sheet vs the champions, Manchester United, thinking the worst, with a midfield containing Hogg, Bannan, and Albrighton. Then though, they got to watch the youthful Villa team play United off the Park (by Sir Alex’s own admission).
If advances in technology, health and fitness have on the whole extended many players’ careers, and in turn, meant less of a chance for a younger generation to shine.But, it doesn’t mean they’re not ready. I’m sure now Lambert will make the decision to who stays and goes accordingly. Picking the right ones is important to make Villa competitive without the need to splash too much cash.
The perception that success in the league is brought, is not necessarily true. Torres, Carroll and Downing, who cost a collective £85 million,last season under-performed even Bent, Agbonlahor and N’Zogbia, and the Villa trio have hardly set the world on fire last season.
Last season, Newcastle have been a prime example of buying astutely to build a team, rather than having 11 marque headliners. Newcastle had a team decent enough to challenge for a Champion’s League spot, while a few seasons ago, Villa threw bad money after good in a failed bid to buy their way into the top four.
Money spent astutely on a creative/leader midfielder and also a forward that brings the best out of Darren Bent, would be the starting point of Lambert’s rebuilding process.
With senior players new and old taking the responsibility in games, without too much pressure, the younger players will be allowed to express themselves and blossom into integral members of the team. That balance should bring Villa success on the pitch.
I think the McLeish plan A was to see Villa safe from regulation asap, then with a decent number of no-pressure games left in the season, he’d have the opportunity of playing more youngsters to see who was ready to step up for the following season (so he could save money on transfers). Of course, that didn’t pan out that way and they had to play under the heavy shadow of relegation right until the end of the season.
Delph and Delfonso maybe the younger players most at risk of a Lambert cull. Bannan and Albrighton may have to prove themselves by stepping up a notch, while Herd, Clark, Weimann, Baker and Lichaj should have a good future, at least in the short-term.
Hopefully, next year with a mix of talented home-grown youth, new blood and the best of what we already have, we’ll have a first team of 11 hungry and fearless lions.
For an away team, no matter who they are, trying to walk away from Villa Park with any points should once again become a tall order.
The Ages of the League Champions of 1980/81
Jimmy Rimmer, age 32
Gary Williams, age 20
Colin Gibson, age 20
Ken McNaught, age 25
Allan Evans, age 24
Kenny Swain, age 28
Eamonn Deacy, age 21
Dennis Mortimer, age 28
Des Bremner, age 28
Tony Morley, age 26
Gordon Cowans, age 22
Peter Withe, age 30
Gary Shaw, age 19
David Geddis, age 22
Average Age – 24.6 years old
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Main Photo credit – Liz Owen