Matt Maher: Inner city move could be a game-changer for Aston Villa
Just down the road from Witton railway station, about a couple of Emi Martinez goal-kicks from Villa Park, a major piece of the club’s long-term plan for success is taking shape.
The club’s inner city academy might not look like much right now but when it is finished in late July, the £8million facility will house a full-sized indoor pitch, two three-quarter sized outdoor pitches along with six changing rooms and offices.
“A total game-changer for the core function of recruiting young footballers, getting our coaches to work with them and seeing if we can produce a star of the future,” chief executive Christian Purslow claimed yesterday.
Villa haven’t done too badly producing their own players in the past. This is, after all, the club which scouted and developed Britain’s first £100million player.
Yet while Jack Grealish and Jacob Ramsey, the latter present at the inner city site yesterday for a press event which also involved West Midlands mayor Andy Street, have rolled off the Bodymoor Heath production line, for some time there has been a sense the training ground’s location some 10 miles from the stadium was putting the club at a disadvantage when it came to recruiting talent on its doorstep.
Saido Berahino and Romaine Sawyers are just two examples of players who grew up within a mile of Villa Park and yet ended up at Albion.
Steve Round, sporting director at Villa during Tony Xia’s two-year ownership, was the first to voice the problem and since the arrival of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, the club has worked hard to rectify it, overhauling its academy staff (the 2019 appointment of boss Mark Harrison one of just several to move over from the Baggies) and staying very much on the front foot when it comes to recruiting the best young players from the UK and abroad.
The first-team will always be the main focus for supporters and with Villa having splashed out more than £400m on senior players over the last five years, the stockpiling of youth talent might be easy to overlook.
Yet it has been significant. Lamare Bogarde (Feyenoord), Rory Wilson (Rangers), Ben Chrisene (Exeter) and Louie Barry (Barcelona) are just a few examples of players signed for six-figure fees. Midfielder Tim Iroegbunam was persuaded to leave Albion for Villa, making his Premier League bow last season aged just 18.
Last season Villa had 22 academy players receive international call-ups at youth level, the most of any club outside the Premier League’s Big Six.
“When Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens bought the club they immediately set a vibrant academy at the heart of our future plans,” said Purslow.
“That is because in the long-run the true sustainability for a club has to include a significant portion of players being homegrown.”
While the primary hope is of producing players who go on to become regulars for Villa’s first-team, there is also the chance of bolstering the coffers through those who don’t. Carney Chukwuemeka, sold to Chelsea last summer for a fee of £20m, is the standout example there.
Villa have previously cast the net far and wide in their recruitment drive but the post-Brexit rules mean no players can now be signed from the EU until the age 18.
“That puts an even greater premium on dominating your catchment area,” said Purslow. “Most people who live in the area would accept Aston Villa should aspire to hold a stranglehold at least on the Birmingham marketplace. That has not always been true.
“Albion have been a very effective competitor but Blues also have a very good youth programme, as do Wolves. Everyone has been very fishing in the same talent pool.
“The location of our main academy out at Bodymoor has not been advantageous to attracting those kids from the inner city in particular.
“For young kids who live and go to school in the immediate surrounds of our stadium it is simply not practical. I studied it and over a number of years, other clubs in our region had been mopping up many young footballers from the inner city, to our cost.”
The inner city academy is intended to further rectify that and ensure the club is maximising every potential avenue when it comes to sourcing talent.
Located on land already owned by the club but previously only used on matchdays as a staff car park, it will eventually be linked to the stadium by a walkway which will pass over the River Tame and under the railway line. The intention is to eventually open the academy to families on matchdays.
Villa studied existing builds at Chelsea and other clubs before deciding on a design, with the development headed up by Shaun Darke, who previously oversaw the multi-million pound revamp of Bodymoor Heath – another largely untold story of the Sawiris-Edens era.
The biggest project is soon to begin, Villa Park itself, with a new North Stand taking the capacity beyond 50,000. Work is not expected to start until Street and the West Midlands Combined Authority commit to the expansion of Witton station to ease congestion on matchdays.
“We’re all absolutely supportive of what Villa want to do,” said the mayor yesterday.
“We need to find the cash for it and to get the detailed plans drawn up to go through planning approval. I expect that we will be able to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”