It doesn’t seem that long ago to a time when the Aston Villa youth teams were something to be proud of. For many years, the Villa academy and reserves was regularly among the best in England, competing for the FA Youth Cup and finishing at or near the top of the Premier Reserve League each year.
More importantly, the Villa academy produced and held players that seemed ready to enter the first-team setup and become the next generation of Villa Park heroes. As the youth teams excelled, Villa had high hopes for individual players such as Gary Gardner, Samir Carruthers, Jonathan Hogg, Harry Forrester, Barry Bannan, Nathan Delfouneso, Marc Albrighton and numerous others.
While not many of that generation of Villa academy graduates has found success at the highest level, at least Villa was developing plenty of prospects. That hasn’t been the case in recent years, with Jack Grealish and Callum Robinson being among the only exceptions.
Coinciding with the first team’s decline from European contender to relegation survivor, the Aston Villa youth teams have likewise dropped in quality over the past few years.
With Monday’s 3-2 loss at Chesterfield in the third round proper of the FA Youth Cup – a game that Villa led 2-0 – Aston Villa have failed to advance past the fourth round in England's top cup tournament for U18 squads since reaching the semifinals in 2011, losing to Brighton, Peterborough, Liverpool and now Chesterfield in the process since then.
And while a draw against Middlesbrough for the Aston Villa U21 team on Monday is certainly better than some previous results from earlier this season – including a 4-1 loss to West Brom, a 5-0 defeat to Newcastle and a 5-1 home embarrassment against Reading – it still shows how far a team that won the Premier Reserve South League four times in five years from 2008-12 has fallen.
So as another FA Youth Cup run ends at the first hurdle and the Villa U21 team continues to struggle in the second division of the new Under 21 Premier League system, it begs the question: What has happened to Aston Villa’s youth teams?
Searching for the answer only brings up more questions because there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the Aston Villa youth has dropped in quality so quickly.
The coaching staff hasn’t changed. Gordon "Sid" Cowans, a member of the European Cup-winning Aston Villa team and a man loved by Claret and Blue supporters everywhere, still leads the academy staff and manages the Villa U21 team.
The investment doesn’t seem to be lacking. Villa have great facilities at Bodymoor Heath and have spent money to send youth teams to prestigious tournaments like the Hong Kong Sevens and the NextGen Series, which Villa actually won over Chelsea in 2013 thanks to a brace from Graham Burke, a player that is now aged 21 and has yet to play for Villa in the Premier League.
So why the sudden and alarming struggles from the Aston Villa youth teams?
One possible answer comes from the lack of success that Aston Villa academy graduates have had at top level of the sport over the past few years. This inability of Villa to produce Premier League stars – of Villa academy graduates since 2010, only Andreas Weimann and Nathan Baker have played regularly in the Premier League – probably hasn’t helped in the club's recruitment of young starlets.
For example, it might have played a role in uber-talented Dan Crowley’s decision to leave Villa in 2013 and sign with Arsenal, a club that has produced Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs recently. And it might be keeping other top prospects from committing to learning their trade at Bodymoor Heath, unlike in the past when the club could point to Gary Cahill, Daniel Sturridge and Gabriel Agbonlahor as international-quality Villa academy products.
Regardless of the reason, it isn’t a good look for Aston Villa to be fielding youth teams that can’t beat reserve squads from Football League clubs like Chesterfield and Middlesbrough. It’s an even worse look when results like the U21’s 5-1 home loss to Reading start occurring on a frequent basis.
Aston Villa is often heralded for its academy, but the days of encouraging signs like this from the club’s youth are quickly fading.
For a club that has used the words "Bright Future" as part of its marketing slogan for several years, Aston Villa’s youth teams have a long way to go to convince fans that they can contribute to that future in the same way that they used to.