Matt Maher: Aston Villa's brave kids show there is a need for reserve league to return

The Football Association owe Louie Barry and his Villa youth team stars a debt of gratitude for their brave performance in last Friday’s defeat to Liverpool.

Villa’s Louie Barry stole the headlines
Villa’s Louie Barry stole the headlines

In the chaotic build-up there was a feeling the FA Cup was destined for another depressing night, a glamour tie reduced to farce as a team of teenagers were put to the sword by the reigning World Club champions.

Instead the plucky performance of Villa’s kids – and Barry’s first senior goal – stole the headlines. The narrative became one much more familiar to the Cup, that of the underdog giving one of the big boys (a more than apt description when taking into account the physical stature of both teams) a fright.

Villa emerged from the night with credit and pride intact, the focus very much on what had been gained, rather than lost, after a coronavirus outbreak ruled out the entire first-team squad.

Much of the post-match talk focused on the value of the experience for the club’s youngsters and how they must use it to help the next stage of their development. It feels fair, then, to question whether they might benefit from facing more senior opposition, more often?

As things stand opportunities for academy players at top level clubs to experience what might be termed “men’s football” can be somewhat limited.

Loan moves are an option for the stand-out players, of course, yet academies also need sufficient numbers to field teams in Premier League 2, an under-23s competition where it is accepted the standard falls some way short of first-team level, certainly in terms of pace and physicality.

At Villa there has been a deliberate move to remedy this by pushing the best young players more quickly through the ranks. Barry and Ben Chrisene, for example, are both still under-18s yet regularly feature for the under-23s.

Still, one can’t help wondering whether they and many other young players might benefit from the return of a credible Reserves League?

It wouldn’t just help the youngsters. Villa’s coronavirus outbreak denied the likes of Neil Taylor, Bjorn Engels and Frederic Guilbert what would have been their first serious action for months. There are out-of-favour players at every Premier League club in need of game time.

Yet for all this to happen, it would require altering the league’s Elite Player Performance Plan, the scheme which first saw the Reserves League replaced by an under-21 competition in 2012.

Such change, admittedly, is unlikely. Still, watching those Villa youngsters did offer some food for thought.

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