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Aston Villa's NextGen heroes in it for the long haul

International shirts line the walls at the Aston Villa academy.

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Ciaran Clark, Lee Hendrie and Gary Cahill's jerseys act as inspiration in the corridors at Bodymoor.

To the current crop, they are a symbol of what could be but to assistant academy boss Steve Burns they are what has been.

Villa's 2-0 NextGen Series final win over Chelsea last week was a nod to the academy's already excellent reputation.

The production line has rolled off 13 current academy graduates – with 60-goal Gabby Agbonlahor on the brink of becoming the Villa's record Premier League goalscorer.

As a category one academy under the Elite Player Performance Plan Burns aims to produce more international stars – the days of the scholars being the first team's boot boys are over.

Burns said: "We've produced something like between 30 and 35 people who have been in the first team and of those we've got a dozen who have actually played international football.

"Down the academy corridor we have the shirts with their pictures, so we can basically say to the players 'that could be you.' Coming into the academy is the first step on the ladder.

"Working your way through the teams is another step, getting into the NextGen team is another step, then the reserves, then getting into the first team and playing in the Premier League and getting an international cap.

"You need to be some player to be able to do that. It's fantastic for the football club that so many young players are in the team including those that have come through the academy.

"As you walk down the academy changing room area you look at all the players, Lee Hendrie, Boaz Myhill, Ciaran Clark, Gary Cahill, Darius Vassell, Gabby Agbonlahor.

"If you look at them then the players must think 'I have got a chance, 'I have got an opportunity'."

And the current kids have a chance after their NextGen win last week – where they beat Ajax, Olympiakos and Sporting Lisbon in the knock out stages.

Manager Paul Lambert watched their win in Lake Como – complete with a surprise pre-match pep talk – but has warned the gulf between the NextGen and Premier League is huge.

Burns said: "It's massive. He's right, we should celebrate it but our job is to provide players for the first team.

"If you have done well in the NextGen, all it means is you have been in a fortunate position to win a few games. The Premier League is a million miles away.

"For them, to make that step is a really big and it's important they are prepared well.

"The experiences they get at the club both from the coaching and playing in the NextGen and the reserves is an opportunity for them to develop."

NextGen 'veterans' Derrick Williams, Graham Burke and Samir Carruthers have already made their first-team debuts to give continued hope to the 100 kids currently within the academy.

From nine-years-old they are assessed year by year with a two-year registration signed at 12, before the lucky few are handed a full-time deal at 17.

And while the NextGen victory is an impressive statement – Inter Milan were the winners last year – Burns' job is to develop players.

Results are not all consuming and not all will make it, as Burns knows from personal experience after failing to make the grade at Walsall.

He became a PE and maths teacher at George Dixon School in Birmingham, before joining the advisory service in Sandwell and then Wolverhampton.

He got a 'free transfer' to Villa 25 years ago and insists the continuity – academy chief Bryan Jones and youth team manager Tony McAndrew have been at the club a combined 55 years – is key.

He said: "The coaching staff have played for the club and come through that way. We have that consistency of staff which is really important.

"If you sign as a nine-year-old you want the coach who signed you to be there.

"The team off the field – that includes the education people, secretaries, sports medicine – know our job is to produce players for the first team.

"Winning a trophy is great but providing players for the first team is our job. We know that.

"It's such a long process. If you take Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan and Gabby they have been in the team a long time and to see them playing for the club is so warming.

"They are local boys and have been with them a long time so to see them representing the football club is fantastic.

"It's a very friendly club, extremely professional and we're very motivated to make sure we can provide the right players for the first team. There's a massive heart."

By Nick Mashiter

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