It was announced a couple days ago, but Callum Robinson’s off to Preston North End. His contract had run down, and the player moved back to the club he’d spent a good chunk of time on loan at — and a place he really enjoyed his football.
Losing Robinson, in a vacuum, isn’t a particularly terrible thing. It’s unfortunate we never got to see him get a real run with the Aston Villa first team, but the idea’s also acceptable that he’s just not good enough to do so. But his departure makes me sad, not because I love the kid (and I do), but because of what his departure represents: another once-bright talent who never made it at Villa.
Remember three years ago, when our U-19 squad won the NextGen tournament, toppling Chelsea to become the youth Champions of Europe? It was a fun little moment in the midst of an otherwise miserable season, giving Villa fans a beacon of hope for the future — and after all, in 2013, youth was the policy at Aston Villa.
But what happened to that group of youngsters? The answer is a little sad. So, going through, one-by-one the 11 players who played in that final in Lake Como three seasons back.
Brad Watkins: Villa’s goalkeeper that night seems to still be at the club, though Transfermarkt showed his contract as expiring June 30. Watkins, now 21, has made occasional starts for the U-21 side (the last December 21, per TM), but has only witnessed senior football at Villa Park from the bench as a substitute in the League Cup win over Notts County in August.
Joshua Webb: He was playing pretty regularly for the U-21 side through the end of the season, but the right back has since joined Scottish Premiership side Kilmarnock on a free transfer after his contract ran out.
Bradley Lewis: The centre-half moved to Halesowen Town last summer. That’s seventh-tier Halesowen.
Janoi Donacien: Like Webb, Donacien has left Villa this summer, though he doesn’t yet have a destination. Unlike others on the team, Donacien’s played first-team football since, spending time in League Two on loan at Tranmere Rovers, Wycombe Wanderers and Newport County, meaning he should have no issue finding a landing spot.
Lewis Kinsella: Third member of this group to be released this summer. He showed promise last season, making the squad under Tim Sherwood, but at 21, his time at Villa has also come to an end. Kinsella spent a brief period in 2015 on loan at Luton Town, but had a longer stint this season down the road at Kidderminster Harriers, formerly of the fifth tier. Yes, Kinsella was relegated twice this year.
Josh Barton: After winning the NextGen crown, Barton wasn’t long for the claret and blue. He moved in 2013 to Northern Irish side Portadown and again in 2014 to Dungannon Swifts — but it looks like Barton’s now out of football entirely.
Riccardo Calder: Hey, we finally found another guy still at the club! Calder was out on loan twice last year, at Dundee and Doncaster Rovers, where he gained some solid playing time in the Scottish Premiership and League One. There’s still hope here, I think, that we see Calder feature in the first team down the road. And he’s still young, having just turned 20 in January.
Samir Carruthers: Out of all the guys that never panned out for Villa, Carruthers remains the most disappointing to me. It’s probably because I loved training him up on FIFA, or perhaps because he made three Premier League appearances under Alex McLeish, but his permanent move to Milton Keynes Dons in 2014, right as it looked like he could start working his way into the Villa first team, was a little rough. He made 39 Championship appearances as the franchise was relegated this year, but made headlines for his off-the-field antics; he was caught urinating into a beer glass at Cheltenham.
Jack Grealish: It’s a happy story! Grealish broke through into the first team in 2015 under Tim Sherwood, serving as Villa’s catalyst for survival. Of course, last season wasn’t too bright for anyone, especially Jack, but his future still looks good in claret and blue. Thankfully.
Graham Burke: Burke made a couple League Cup appearances in Paul Lambert’s maiden season, but he left Villa Park in 2015 for a permanent move to Notts County, where the striker hasn’t been too prolific, scoring just twice in 31 appearances this season.
Callum Robinson: We also all know Callum’s story. I don’t think I was alone with the thought that he’d one day be part of the first-team setup, and I wish him well at Preston. Well, except when they come up against us in the league next year.
That’s it. That’s the XI that won the NextGen tournament. It’s Jack Grealish, two guys who could still feature for Villa (Calder more likely than Watkins, IMO) and eight guys who no longer wear Villa’s claret and blue shirts.
And the reason Robinson’s departure is unsettling more than ever is that Aston Villa have another really strong group of youth players coming through the pipeline. From Andre Green to Oscar Borg, Kevin Toner to Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Jerell Sellars to Jordan Lyden, there’s a crew most Villa fans expect to see featuring for the first team, some of which already have Premier League appearances under their belt.
Of course, our past adventures with talented youth should remind us how rarely these guys work out — otherwise Villa would have a great side led up top by Nathan Delfouneso — but it also begs the question of who Villa can move forward and get these guys into the first-team setup. A lot (read: most) of Southampton’s success originates with their extremely strong youth policy and ability to sell young, developed players for big fees. They did a fantastic job doing that with a crop of players, and being smart with those funds allowed them to move comfortably into the Premier League’s top half.
If Villa find themselves unable to spend their way back up there, a good youth policy could be a way to get it done.
Sure, Aston Villa can have some success if Lyden or Green or Toner don’t turn out. But it’s a lot easier to do it if they do — and a lot more fun, too.
Robinson’s departure marks one of the last significant bits of news from Villa’s NextGen-winning side. Which means it’s time to focus our attention toward the real next generation of Villa stars.
Or so we hope.