The Youth of Today – and Yesterday

It would have been fitting if Villa and Liverpool had delayed their Youth Cup final re-match by another twelve months, to make the gap between these two clubs contesting for the trophy a round fifty years. No matter, we got ourselves a good enough contest with a winning result, and the nature of the performances, both then and now, gave Villa fans much comfort at the time, and allows us now the vision of great hopes for the future.

I recall going down to Villa Park to watch the reserves against Blackpool in October 1971. On this particular Saturday, the first team were playing a promotion crunch match at Bournemouth. The 3-0 defeat was quite bad enough on its own, but the nature of the performance made it even harder to swallow; the pasting had been so fully deserved. Messrs Crowe and Wylie’s team was in a bad run, having topped the table earlier in the month and, judging from the letters page in the Sports Argus, the air of grumpiness was almost tangible. One writer, who had travelled down to Dean Court, said that a home fan who he had engaged in conversation, informed him that Villa were the worst team he had seen at the ground for three years. The previous season, Bournemouth had been a fourth division side. Ouch!

While all this was happening, the aforementioned reserve game resulted in a 4-0 Villa win. Just as with the first eleven, the result was totally merited and left some wondering if the bright sparks in the stiffs might make a better fist of things in the first eleven than some of the old hands. Purely on the strength of these two showings, the argument looked fair enough. The reality of course, was that few of these reserves were ready for the intensity and physicality of the third division. Still, the most promising of the young players, Brian Little, was put on the bench for the next league game against Blackburn Rovers. With the home side 4-1 up at half-time (two of the goals came from another reserve, Neil Rioch), Vic brought him on for the last twenty minutes for his first run-out at this level.

After that, it was back to the reserve and youth sides for Brian. That was okay though, as they were in the process of writing their own bit of Villa history. There had been a sniff of something good going on when respected Evening Mail reporter Dennis Shaw, in his pre-season prediction piece on Villa’s forthcoming season, noted that Villa’s youth side had played a friendly match against that of Leeds United. Such had been Villa’s dominance in the game, that Don Revie quietly dropped the prospect of a return match before the season started. As a third division club, Villa were required to play from round one of the national youth tournament. After negotiating early games against Boldmere St. Michael’s and Port Vale to an aggregate score of 15-0, West Brom in the third round looked a tougher nut to crack and so it proved, Villa sneaking a 3-2 win.

There was a tremor of excitement when we were drawn against Small Heath at the Sty in round four. A crowd of over 25,000 proved the attraction of this fixture. Blues even played Trevor Francis to start, to show how seriously they were taking the game. Coach Frank Upton countered this by giving Jimmy Brown, Villa’s youngest-ever first-team player, the job of marking the home striker. It worked too, as Villa earned a 1-1 draw. In happier football days there were replays if needed, so it was back to Villa Park in the pouring rain, where the truly awful weather kept the attendance down to a mere 18,000. Villa nicked it 2-1 but the significance of this was much more than just the result. For years, Blues had brought on a conveyor-belt of talent that led direct to their first-team. In contrast, Villa’s youth system had been effectively non-existent. The new Villa board had worked hard for years to turn this around; now the system was bearing fruit.

Two-game ties became the norm. It looked like Villa were on the way out when they were one down for a long spell away to Chelsea but a late goal from Little rescued the situation and the teams had to come to B6 for the decider. There wasn’t much between the two sides -at least not in the ninety minutes. The most noteworthy moment from the game at this stage, at least for this observer, was the passing of a ball to the Chelsea right-winger, Ian Britton. Sadly for him, the ball arrived at exactly the same instant as a strong and scrupulously fair challenge from impressive left-back Bobby McDonald that left Britton flat out on the ground. The brave winger got up gingerly, just in time to receive another ball that he probably didn’t want and got another crunching McDonald challenge that put him on the floor again! The glamour of the cup, eh? In one of those strange episodes that make football what it is, Villa then proceeded to score three unanswered goals in the first period of extra time and the tie was over. Bobby Mac was in the frame again in the semi-final, with his cross-cum-shot carrying into the net for the winner against Arsenal, the away leg having been goalless.

This set up a final against Liverpool. One player in particular was licking his lips at this one; John Gidman, who had been released by his beloved Merseyside club the previous summer. Villa’s chief scout, Neville Briggs, wasted no time at all in contacting the deflated Gidman and bringing him to Villa Park where he was to enjoy the best years of a long career at the top of the game. Forgetting all that ‘the script’s been written’ nonsense, it was fitting enough that Villa took a 1-0 advantage from the first leg with the winning penalty being scored by John. If a win against such a big-name club was the stuff of dreams, there was plenty of work remaining with the second leg at Anfield looming ahead. Liverpool scored the opener, Villa levelled with a Dougie George header and things looked good until a late goal from the home side, accompanied by the sending-off of Bobby McDonald, left a hill, if not a mountain, to climb. Scale it they did, though, with the ten men (should that be boys?) somehow running away with the game in extra time, thanks to two vivid goals from Brian Little.

Coming just a day after Villa had clinched promotion to the second division, made this a special week for Villa fans. To add to the celebrations, it was rumoured that Crowe would look to put in some of these lads into the first team for the home game against relegation-bound Torquay. What a day this was! The young lads paraded the Youth Cup around the Villa Park running-track, before Andy Lochhead displayed his award of Midland Footballer of the Year to a happy Villa crowd, while his team-mates applauded. One of the youngsters wasn’t able to join in with the cup celebrations, however, as he was too busy putting his first team gear on for his full debut.

I’m talking, of course, about Brian Little. Fittingly, for a player soon to become known as the Man Who Walks on Water, the conditions were pretty damp in the wet Spring weather. This didn’t stop our Brian from getting involved early on. First, he squared a ball from the left for Lochhead to knock in the second goal. Torquay briefly brought it back to 3-1 when former Holte End favourite Dick Edwards slotted in from a corner. This turned out to be merely the prelude to one of the biggest cheers of the day when a flag-kick at the other end saw Little turn and shoot into the net. Cue celebrations and chants of ‘Superboy’ from the Holte. Word was about that Crowe had considered putting the excellent Jake Findlay in goal for the Torquay match, but decided against it. Gidman’s name was also pencilled in for a start, but a slight concussion in the Youth Cup final meant that they didn’t want to take the risk. Bobby McDonald was yet another selection prospect, the nature of his sending-off in the final being interpreted as the sort of incident that shouldn’t be rewarded with a first-team place.

So Villa fans went into the summer feeling good about their club again. Promoted back to the second division; big, loud crowds, cheering on a team with one obvious star player (Rioch) but plenty of other quality; money to spend (until the Ellis regime decided to not so much tighten, as cut, the purse-strings) and plenty of young talent coming through. Life was great, on the surface. Prising off those Claret and Blue specs just for a while, fans had to ask just how good some of these young players were, in terms of first-team futures. Little’s talent was manifest, and Jimmy Brown, who had made his debut at the age of fifteen under Tommy Docherty, had played a decent part in the promotion success. Looking through that youth side, it was hard to see beyond Brown in the midfield places. Brian Melling, Dougie George, Mick Brady and David Smith were all worthy enough, without having done much to mark them out for the first eleven. At the back, Roy Stark and Alan Little were good, strong centre-backs who didn’t let much get past them and looked like they might have a chance of making it.

In the end, that’s about how it turned out. Brian became a Villa legend, not just for his efforts on the pitch, of course. Gidman and McDonald had long, strong careers even if they were mostly, and disgracefully, ignored at international level. Findlay might have made it at Villa, but managers are rarely brave enough to select a young ‘keeper over a long enough period for them to develop. Stark, Alan Little and Tony Betts, the amateur international centre-forward, got a few first-team games, Alan even slotting a vital goal at Colchester in Villa’s triumphant 1974-75 League Cup run under Ron Saunders. Jimmy Brown, recognised a couple of years before all the rest, just seemed to fade away and retired early.

One of the great things about this group was its sense of togetherness. Some of these lads remained friends over the decades and Brian Little seems to have kept in touch with a lot of them. For most, of course, that cup win was the biggest thing in their football lives, so it’s hardly surprising that they look back on those days with much fondness. There’s the same feeling around the current bunch of youth players. Though regarded as such, by their own lights they might feel like veterans of a sort. In the run-up to the final, Sean Verity pointed out that as fifteen-year-olds, the same group of lads had won an age-limited floodlit trophy together, so many of them have played and been mates for years.

If they seem comfortable and happy together as a group, that sense of fitting together seamlessly comes over even more strongly when they get the kit on and get ready to play. Years ago, when Keir Wyness gave out the idea of ‘The Villa Engine’ to the Villa-supporting public, many questioned a scheme which seemed to require all the youth sides to play the same style of football but not the, er, first team. It made little sense then and even less now, when you see the pressing, movement and inter-passing at youth level reflecting what we see in the first eleven most weeks, making the chances of a successful transition to the highest level surely a little easier.

The nature of recruitment has changed, too. Nicking a youth player off the Albion back in the seventies would have been great; having to deal with Barcelona to do it would have sounded barmy back then. So would strengthening the squad with a number of European players like Bogarde, Swinkels, Sylla and Zych. These days, the policy seems to be recruit only the best players, regardless of where they come from.

And boy, has it worked! The bringing in of Paul Harrison from the Baggies, and the clear boosting of resources to add players and coaches shows Villa’s determination to get this right. Apparently, on the night of the final, Mile Jedinak was in the stands, making judgements as to which members of this fine team would be better off playing out on loan next season. After all, the next lot of high-quality kids will be in place soon.

To compare the results of the two teams is pretty easy. I’ve already tried to show how difficult Villa’s progress was for most of 1972. For the latest generation, a narrow 4-3 win at Reading with a late winner was as tough as it got. Every other game on the run was more or less a procession, as a flood of goals, many of them in the memorable category, swept Villa through to the final where Liverpool’s lads did well to come back after being two down after ten minutes; but few who saw the game felt other than that the final score flattered the visitors.

To get a real taste of how exciting all this stuff is, it’s not a bad idea to look at some of the players who only had a minor role to play in the cup triumph. Kahrel Reddin was a rare starter in the side, but his finish with his weaker foot against Newcastle was worth watching a few times. Hayden Lindley, a Manchester City reject, benefitted from an injury to Aaron Ramsey to claim a place and looked a disciplined player, happy to tidy up while others went forward with both skill and intent. Filip Marschall wasn’t nailed on for the goalkeeping position throughout the run, but his handling of awkward high balls under pressure in the final was impressive.

Of course, of the regulars Carney Chukwuemeka has been so good so often that it isn’t just Villa fans who have remembered his name. His brilliant form throughout has brought him to the Villa first-team bench and even onto the pitch, a remarkable achievement for a seventeen-year-old. The only debate over this lad is when, not if, he will become a regular in the first eleven. He may be in good company; Lamare Bogarde has looked very impressive bringing the ball out from the back; Arjen Reiky’s power and passing ability was a massive boost to the side; both Brad Young and Louie Barry look like exciting, incisive strikers; before Aaron Ramsey’s injury, he was outshining Chukwuemeka with his clever footwork and finishing. Kaine Kessler is a bundle of energy on the right and loves to get forward.

All in all, it’s impossible not to be excited at the prospect of that little lot filling Villa’s squad in the next couple of years. While injuries, bad habits, stalled development and lack of opportunity can take it all away, this is a great time to be a Villa fan – again. But which of them will go on to match the best of the Boys of ‘72?

Dave Collett

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