Last night, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy did something in the U23 match that an Aston Villa senior player hasn’t done since Jonathan Kodjia left for the Africa Cup of Nations: score a goal.
With Kodjia, Villa’s only consistent goalscoring threat this season, gone, Steve Bruce is turning to Ross McCormack and Gabby Agbonlahor to lead the line. Hepburn-Murphy, Villa’s 18-year-old starlet who made his Premier League debut at 16, will likely continue to sit on the sidelines for a reason that goes beyond his talent: his contract status.
It’s been well-documented, but Hepburn-Murphy’s contract expires at the end of the season and, despite being offered the best contract Villa have ever put in front of an academy graduate, he hasn’t yet signed on for another few years at Villa. As such, Bruce and Villa aren’t giving him minutes. A reasonable thought, right? After all, who is Hepburn-Murphy to turn down a great contract offer, hardly having proven himself beyond the U23 circuit?
In a vacuum, no, Villa shouldn’t be giving first-team minutes to someone who hasn’t pledged his future to the club past the end of the season, as what’s the point of developing a player just for someone else to use next season? And typically, teenagers aren’t getting playing time based on their talent in the first place; they’re getting it because of their potential. An 18-year-old who’s less talented than a 30-year-old might still get that spot in the XI or on the bench anyway, because playing and unlocking the potential over the long term is more beneficial to the club than the short-term benefit of playing the superior player.
Here’s my question for Bruce and the Villa management, though: Is Hepburn-Murphy, right now in 2017, better or worse than Agbonlahor?
A lot of the chatter coming out of Bodymoor Heath revolves around the idea that Hepburn-Murphy isn’t playing because of his contract situation, not because he isn’t good enough. And if it’s the latter, well, there my be more benefit for the club to play Hepburn-Murphy, not to exclude him.
If Hepburn-Murphy wants to leave the club, leaving him on the bench isn’t going to change that — and given Keinan Davis isn’t likely to be a key player in Championship matches this term, it’s not like there’s a long-term developmental benefit to giving Hepburn-Murphy’s minutes to other players. At this stage in their careers, Agbonlahor and McCormack aren’t prospects. They are what they are.
And as the club chase promotion, the focus should be on putting out the best possible XI, followed by the best possible bench, each time out. If that 18-man crew includes Hepburn-Murphy, he should be there, irrespective of the contract situation.
Villa should do what’s best for the club and, if Hepburn-Murphy is talented enough, playing him is probably the answer to that question. You get a better player on the pitch and, from Hepburn-Murphy’s point of view, the player will likely be looking to prove himself to bigger clubs monitoring the situation. As a boost, if the forward would leave Villa for a club in England, rather than signing for Rangers or another foreign club, good first-team performances would likely boost the fee Villa get at the tribunal for his player development.
Now, if Hepburn-Murphy just isn’t good enough, discard all of that. But if he’s good enough to lead the line, he should be leading that line, irrespective of whether or not he’s signed a new deal. Playing hardball isn’t likely to really benefit the club in any tangible way — so if that’s why he isn’t playing, what’s the real point?