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Villa should make youth development a focus the rest of the way

At one point, Callum Robinson and Daniel Johnson were thought to be key players for the future of Aston Villa. Instead, they’ve taken four points from Villa this year. The club should learn from its mistakes with the duo as the rest of the Championship season continues.

Preston North End v Arsenal - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round
PRESTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Callum Robinson of Preston North End celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Preston North End and Arsenal at Deepdale on January 7, 2017 in Preston, England.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

When January 2016 rolled around, the odds of Aston Villa completing the season’s goal — survival in the Premier League — were extremely low. Sure, it was possible, but it wasn’t particularly likely. The club weren’t getting the necessary goals, playing good football or, well, winning much of anything when the winter transfer window opened last season.

Villa didn’t make any signings that window, waving the white flag, but five days into it, they may have made one of the most damaging calls of all: loaning Callum Robinson back to Preston North End.

Robinson was to be one of Villa’s next generation of stars; an England youth international for years, the vision of Villa fans was that he and Jack Grealish would lead the charges. And when he returned from an ineffective loan to Bristol City at the midway point of last season, there were calls throughout to give the youngster some games, an opportunity to prove himself.

Instead, Rémi Garde and Villa loaned him, and a few months later, when Robinson reached the end of his contract, he opted to join Preston — a side that had actually given him a chance — permanently instead of sticking with Villa. Aside from the agreed compensation, Villa got nothing out of the years of development, the potential Robinson carried.

This term at Preston, Robinson’s bagged six goals and added three assists — more productive than anyone not named Jonathan Kodjia at Villa — and certainly would present himself as a better option up top than anyone the Claret and Blues have at their disposal now, with Kodjia off at AFCON. It would sure be a nice asset to have.

And don’t get me started on how Villa sold Daniel Johnson, who’s hit 20 goals in 89 matches at Preston, for £50,000 without ever giving him a look in the first team, all while giving guys like Charles N’Zogbia starts instead.

But a year ago, instead of giving games to youngsters — even once the club’s relegation was confirmed! — Villa instead decided to stick with the personnel that had gotten the club into the mess it was in, positing that those players could somehow lead the miraculous charge to Premier League survival.

This Aston Villa side is not winning promotion this year, of that I am nearly certain. The gap is too big to close, the talent just not here right now in the first team. Everything Villa does, at this point, should be with one eye toward next season, an aim to fix the problems rooted in this squad.

Villa need a proper left winger and I’m happy to see André Green getting a chance to stake his claim to that position. Green is probably the youth player with the highest potential, so bringing him through and into the first team permanently would be a big coup. I’d like to see Keinan Davis get a bigger run, too, given how Villa are short on personnel up top these days.

But who else is sitting in the youth academy, good enough to get a game? Right back is an issue, so what about Tom Leggett, the 20-year-old near-mainstay at the position for the U23 side? What about Kevin Toner, the defender who crept into the first team last year and just got back from a loan deal at Walsall? Perhaps Riccardo Calder, soon to turn 21, could be Villa’s answer in midfield or at left back?

It might be that none of these guys are good enough to handle regular playing time at the Championship level and, if that’s the case, so be it. But I’d rather hand them minutes now and lose a few more matches this year than deem the next Daniel Johnson or Callum Robinson isn’t good enough to break into the Villa squad.

And this isn’t to say that Villa shouldn’t pursue good first-team regulars this transfer window — in fact, it’s the perfect time to. Henri Lansbury, as well as any other signing Villa make, will be given a few months to prove himself, which will be beneficial moving into next year.

Between now and the end of the year, Steve Bruce should evaluate the squad from top-to-bottom, to ensure Villa are targeting the positions of actual need next summer, not the positions of perceived need. Giving more minutes to young players