When Gérard Houllier first arrived on Britain’s shores as joint manager of Liverpool in 1998, he must have taken one look around his squad and thought the future looked very bright indeed. At his disposal were:
Not merely prospects, these players were first team ready, awaiting the call up; looking at how important those players were to Liverpool over the next five years, Aston Villa fans will be hoping Monsieur Houllier has stumbled across another golden generation of players at their club.
The honeymoon period is just about over for Houllier at Villa and as the dust settles he can look around his squad with some confidence knowing that the players the wrong side of 30 will be looking nervously over their shoulder at the baby-faced competition looking to oust them.
Last weekend, Houllier made the interesting call of bringing on the 21-year-old newly declared Irish international Ciaran Clark ahead of the much more senior Carlos Cuéllar when Richard Dunne got injured. Clark has already been given a starting spot in the League Cup by the manager, and a move like this could set a precedent for Houllier’s approach for the rest of the season.
One young player Houllier has been particularly positive towards in the diminutive Barry Bannan. The 5ft 7’ Scotsman will be forever reminded of his size until he makes that big leap into the Villa starting XI, until then all he can do is continue to impress in training and bossing reserve and under 21 matches as he has been doing. When asked about Bannan’s size Houllier responded: “The top level is about skill, intelligence and desire.” The central midfielder has mostly been deployed out wide when venturing into the first team so far, and despite excelling there, he will have his eye on the middle of the Villa Park pitch.
The star of Villa’s current crop is probably the one who is most well known to the rest of league after only a handful of first team games. Marc Albrighton is a breath of fresh air for fans of ‘proper’ English football. He is a winger whose trail of thought is very simple when he receives the ball. Control it. Beat on my man. Cross. His main problems have been decision making and being outthought by more experiences players so far. Better defenders have begun to let him shoot off like a rocket before channelling him down a path to nowhere. However, all the ingredients are there, and it is very likely Albrighton could cement himself in the Villa side this season, such is the unique width he gives the team.
A player you probably heard more about last year than this is Nathan Delfouneso who has almost taken a step back this year which is disappointing for all concerned. A young striker technically superior to Gabby Agbonlahor, Delfouneso has a great habit of scoring when he chances appear, but it is making that impact on games when service is virtually none existent he has to nail down. Injuries and Martin O’Neill’s annoying habit of constantly picking the out of form John Carew/Emile Heskey and subbing them after 70 minuntes for John Carew/Emile Heskey held up Delfouneso last season, but he should get his chance in the cups this year; maybe even sooner if Carew moves on in January. This season could decide if Delfouneso is to follow the path of Agbonlahor, or the mercurial Luke Moore.
An outsider who could make an impact if injuries hit hard is USA international Eric Lichaj. The versatile defender was somewhat surprisingly awarded a new three year contract earlier this year, having not really been a star of the youth setup. Two things to watch out for if you catch him are his hair, and his throw in. Both are very big.
A big criticism of Houllier at Liverpool was that his youth system was a poor one once the players he inherited had progressed to the first team. By not focussing on local recruitment, many merseryside youngsters end up at Everton, since Gerrard, ten (!) years ago, who has made any real impact on the Liverpool 1st XI?
Villa fans will hope Houllier has learnt his lesson and can build on this impressive set of youngsters, because Villa’s record of brining players through has been better than most. Even though some do not earn their living in Birmingham, they are top level professionals who have made Villa a lot of money and more than justified putting so much work into the academy.
Written By Thomas Kerrigan