During the Premier League era, Aston Villa forged a reputation for producing superb youth talent. It is something that is still present at the club today, with the likes of Nathan Baker, Gary Gardner and Jack Grealish all coming through the Villa youth ranks in recent years. There is also much hope at Villa Park for the likes of Andre Green, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Keinan Davis, who have been given a chance in the first team this season.
Well, as Villa fans we have to indulge ourselves from time to time, so let’s have a look back at the greatest XI who have been produced through the Villa academy during the Premier League era.
It does get better than this don’t worry. Yes - most probably unbeknown to most Villa fans, West Brom’s back up keeper Boaz Myhill came through the Villa Park youth ranks.
After joining the club at 12, Myhill went on to sign a professional contract in 2000. The California-born keeper spent time on loan at several different clubs, and was eventually sold, as he failed to oust Peter Enckleman in-between the Villa sticks...
The signing of Thomas Sorensen in 2003 marked the end for Myhill and he was transferred to Hull in the same year. The goalkeeper remained ever-present in the side that rose from the fourth tier of English football to the Premier League. In 2010, Myhill moved to West Brom, and has been a backup to Ben Foster ever since.
Lichaj moved across the pond the 2008, and became a regular in the Villa’s reserve side for the next two seasons. In 2010, Lichaj made his debut for the club in a UEFA Cup fixture against Rapid Vienna. The American earned his first-team chance in November that year, as Luke Young was dropped from the side. However, Gerard Houllier was not an admirer of Lichaj and opted to send him on loan to Leeds, whilst recruiting Kyle Walker on a loan until the end of the season.
Upon returning to the Midlands for the beginning of the 2011/12 season, Lichaj was once again second choice right-back, this time to Villa stalwart, Alan Hutton. The following season saw the American earn more game time under newly appointed Paul Lambert, but after another season spent on the substitute bench (this time as backup to Matthew Lowton), Lichaj was to call time on Villa. He joined Nottingham Forest in 2013, where the 28-year-old still plays now and features regularly.
The eternal ‘one that got away’ for Villa fans. Cahill joined the club at 15, and instantly gained a reputation as a superb defender in the youth ranks. He was loaned to Championship side Burnley in 2004/05, and was voted their Player of the Season. Upon returning to Villa Park the following season, Cahill made his debut in that crazy 8-3 victory against Wycombe. Yet, the defender struggled to force his way into David O’Leary’s plans, and it was only due to injuries to Olof Mellberg and Martin Laursen, that he got his opportunity. In only the defender’s third match for Villa he scored an overhead kick against Birmingham, which is still talked about in the Holte End today. Cahill played 20 league games in Martin O’Neill’s first season at Villa Park, yet was left frustrated the following year when he was carted out on loan, to Sheffield United. Curtis Davis and Kat Knight signed at the beginning of the following season, and in January Cahill was sold to Bolton. From there the defender grew from strength to strength and after four years, he was sold to Chelsea for around £7m. Since then Cahill has become of the most consistent centre-backs in the Premier League, and could be the long term captain when John Terry leaves the Bridge this summer.
Baker was part of the 2007/08 youth side who won the Premier Academy League. The defender was given his first start under Gerard Houllier, yet failed to establish himself as a first team regular. Baker was subsequently sent on loan to Millwall, before returning to B6 for the start of the 2012/13 season.
The Worcester-born defender became an automatic selection for Paul Lambert in his first two seasons, often covering for the constantly-injured Ron Vlaar. However, the following season saw Baker fall out of favour with Lambert as he only played 12 league games all season. In 2015/16 the centre-back was loaned to Bristol City, and was probably relived not to be at Villa Park, in a year that saw the club gain only 17 points.
Baker has added extra Championship experience this season, following his stint at Bristol last year. He bagged his first goal for Villa earlier this season against Brighton, and since the arrival of Steve Bruce has been selected above summer signing Tommy Elphick, at the heart of the Villa defence.
Now, he’s not really a left-back, but he’s serviceable there. Clark joined the Villa youth ranks in 2000, and captained the Villa side who won the Premier Academy League in 2008. The youngster struggled to break into the team during Martin O’Neill’s era and couldn’t oust the likes of Olof Mellberg, Martin Laursen, Richard Dunne, James Collins and Carlos Cuellar from the Villa back-line.
The arrival of Gerard Houllier in 2010, saw the gradual break up of the Ulsterman’s successful side. Clark played 25 times in the 2010/11 season, and scored four goals in his maiden year with the first team squad. The Irish international continued in a similar vein the following season, yet it wasn’t until Paul Lambert arrived at the club that he became a first team regular.
Over the next three campaigns, Clark played 92 times and even captained the side on occasions. Like most in B6, the 2015/16 season scarred the defender, who moved to Championship rivals Newcastle, at the start of this season. Clark has also gained 24 caps for the Republic of Ireland and was part of last summer’s Euro 2016 squad.
Finally, a Brummie in the team! Lee Hendrie made his Villa debut in 1995/96 season. However, due to the irreplaceable Ian Taylor’s superb form in that era, Hendrie struggled to hold down a regular spot in his preferred right-midfield position. In the 1997/98 campaign, Hendrie managed to force his way into the Villa team and played 24 games that year. The following season saw the midfielder become a regular in the side, that included the likes of Ian Taylor, Paul Merson and Mark Draper. Yet, Hendrie held his own, and was such a highly sought after asset, that he received a call up for England in 1998. However, that would remain his one and only international cap in a career that never quite lived up the heights may thought it would.
During his 13 year spell at Villa Park, Hendrie never managed more than six goals in a season. The Birmingham-born lad would ultimately become comfortable in centre-midfield, as well as out wide. Hendrie’s work rate and desire always endeared him to those in the Holte End, yet not Martin O’Neill. The former Celtic manager sold Hendrie within his first year at Villa. He went on to play for Stoke, Sheffield United and Derby amongst others, before eventually finishing his career in non-league football. It would seem that Hendrie never hit the heights expected of him by many at B6.
Steven Davis moved to Birmingham in 2002, to become part of the Villa youth squad. Just two years later, the midfielder was playing for David O’Leary’s senior squad. Davis impressed many at Villa Park with his passing ability and late attacking runs. By the 2005/06 season, he was a guaranteed starter in the side, and played 42 games during the campaign. Despite being selected often in Martin O’Neill’s first year at the club, Davis was sold to Fulham for £4m in 2007. Yet, it didn’t last long for the Ulsterman, who soon got his dream move to Rangers. In three-and-a-half years at Ibrox, Davis won eight major trophies, before Rangers’ liquidation in 2012.
The Northern Irishman moved to newly promoted Southampton that summer, and has become a regular ever since. In each of the last four league campaigns, Davis has played at least 30 games. Following the sale of Jose Fonte in January, Davis was made club captain. The midfielder is also Northern Ireland captain and holds over 90 international caps.
Where to begin? Barry joined Villa in 1997 from Brighton, and after playing a year in the youth squad was promoted to the first team. Barry made his Premier League debut aged just 17. From the 1998/99 season, the teenager became a regular in John Gregory’s side. Barry initially started in centre-defence, but over the next few years would progress into a solid and dependable left-back.
He earned his first England cap in 2000, but was largely overlooked during Sven-Goran Eriksson’s tenure as Three Lions boss. Barry soon become one of the star players in the Villa side and eventually pushed into midfield. It wasn’t until Martin O’Neill became Villa manager, that he took up the defensive-midfield role, which he still displays so expertly today. O’Neill selected Barry as his new captain, and the midfielder began playing the best football of his career.
In 2007, Barry became a regular in the England squad and was in a Villa side pushing for Champions League football. Yet, when Liverpool came calling in 2008, Villa’s captain tried to force a move out of the club. Barry had the captaincy stripped from him, and a year later he left Villa Park to join Manchester City.
Despite being one of Villa’s highest ever appearance holders, and the highest in the Premier League era, Barry’s departure still has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Villa fans. At City, Barry won the Premier League and in 2013 he moved to Everton, where he is still a regular starter. Many fans would welcome Barry backed, and the midfielder is still fond of Aston Villa - could a return be on the cards?
Jack Grealish joined Villa in 2001, aged just six. He rose up through the various youth ranks, and in 2013, was part of the successful team who won the NextGen Series. After a loan move to Notts County in the 2013/14 season, Grealish made his Villa first team debut in a 4-0 defeat to Manchester City. The following season Tim Sherwood gave the winger his first start, and he took full advantage of it. Grealish established himself as important part of the Villa side who made it to the FA Cup final in 2015. That summer saw the first glimpses of Grealish’s party lifestyle, as photos of him passed out in the streets of Tenerife emerged. In 2015/16, his social antics saw him dropped from the squad by Remi Garde, after he spent a boozy night out in Manchester, just hours after Villa’s 4-0 loss to Everton.
This year Grealish started the season impressively, yet after reports of another unauthorised party in September, the midfielder’s form has slipped. Grealish has lost his place in the Villa team and needs to soon start showing the type of form that many in the Holte End know he is capable of.
Birmingham-born Gabby Agbonlahor made his Villa debut in 2005, after progressing through the various youth sides. He scored against Everton on his debut for the club. The following year, Martin O’Neill gave the youngster his first taste of regular action in the senior team. During O’Neill’s four years at the club, Agbonlahor only missed five Premier League games, in which time he bagged 44 goals. He received two England caps between 2008-2009, and many expected the lightning-fast forward to become a Premier League great. Unfortunately he simply has not.
Agbonlahor’s performances began to decline from 2010, and despite the odd purple patch, he has never fulfilled his potential. In 2012, the striker was made temporary captain in light of Stylian Petrov’s illness. In 2015, he became the official club captain. Yet, following pictures which emerged of Agbonlahor on a alcohol-fuelled night out, just hours after Villa had been relegated to the Championship, he resigned as captain. Agbonlahor was already following a fitness regime implemented by the club. Despite severing relations with many fans, Villa’s longest serving player was handed a lifeline by Steve Bruce late in 2016, when he was recalled to the first team. However, it is unclear whether he will be at B6 next season.
Like Hendrie and Barry, Vassell was first given his chance in the Villa team by John Gregory. However, it wasn’t until 2000/01 that the goals started coming for the striker. His first league goal came in a 3-0 victory against Bradford in February 2001. The following season saw him register 12 league goals, his best in a claret and blue shirt. He made his England debut in February 2002, and famously scored a bicycle-kick against the Netherlands. He was included in 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 squads. Yet, the rapid attacker never produced the type of performances for Villa, as he did for England. His career at Villa Park was often blighted with dry spells.
In 2005, Vassell joined Manchester City, and despite an initially good start (which included goals against Villa), he only last four years in Manchester. Once the big money came in, Vassell was forced out, and strangely joined Turkish side Ankaragucu. He endured a nightmare year in Turkey, which involved him playing for free at times. Vassell finished his career at Leicester. The former England international played his last game in 2012, but officially retired four later.