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Delph Set to Agree a New Contract?

At the moment Aston Villa seem to be a club perpetually on the back foot.

The Villains’ acquisition of a selection of cut-price summer signings, players who have consistently underwhelmed in the Premier League throughout their careers (welcome aboard Joe Cole, Phillip Senderos, and Kieran Richardson!), seems to exhibit all of the hallmarks that one has come to associate with a club whose sole ambition is to survive relegation in the coming campaign.

Simultaneously Villa’s systematic offloading of a rake of players that were only signed twelve months ago (so long Jordan Bowery, Nicklas Helenius, Yacouba Sylla, Aleksander Tonev, and Antonio Luna) constitutes a tacit admission that the Birmingham club operated with no greater efficacy in the previous summer window.

These developments damningly reflect an institutional incompetence that has been allowed to run rampant at Villa Park ever since the club’s American owner, Randy Lerner, decided that he has lost interest in his once prized investment and wants out of the Premier League for good.

Villa also appear set to face a battle to keep hold of some of their most prized first-team assets.

Although Christian Benteke’s long-term injury (a set-back that ruled the Belgian out of the recent World Cup in Brazil) may offer the club a stay of execution from losing the one truly outstanding talent in their current roster, the side’s best defender, Ron Vlaar, looks almost certain to depart Villa Park this summer.

Southampton, Tottenham, Roma, and even Manchester United are all clubs rumoured to retain a serious interest in acquiring the 29 year-old Dutch international in the coming weeks.

In the face of all of this negativity, then, Fabian Delph’s recent comments that he is hopeful of renewing his contract at Villa gave fans everywhere a welcome boost ahead of the beginning of what resembles an increasingly ominous new league campaign.

Delph told Villa fans during a Question and Answers session held during the club’s one-week preseason tour of Texas that: “I’d love to sign a new deal and am ready to talk, but it’s not up to me, so we’ll have to see.” The 24 year-old midfielder added that: “I feel like I went missing for a few years and that’s not something I’m happy with.

Indeed, the 2013/14 season can be strangely seen to constitute Delph’s real break-out campaign in English football. This statement seems strange when made in reference to a player who was talked about as a future England captain when he emerged as a promising teenage talent at Leeds and had a cluster of Premier League clubs queuing to sign him before he could even buy a legal pint.

When Martin O’Neill acquired Delph in 2009, therefore, it was seen as a real coup for Villa; a club who were at that stage consistently pushing to achieve Champions League qualification. Injuries, though, halted Delph’s progression in its tracks, and his declining fortunes seemed to mirror that of club which began listing after O’Neill departed in 2010.

Delph made just 23 appearances in his first two seasons contracted to Villa after injuring his cruciate ligament in April 2010. In the 2012/13 season, though, Delph established himself as a regular starter under the new tenure of Paul Lambert and made 32 appearances through that campaign, scoring one goal.

Last year, however, Delph truly began to fulfil the early promise that he showed as an academy player at Leeds and his performances reflected a humbling determination to repay Villa for handing him a new contract even though he was on the long term injury list in 2011.

Delph made 36 appearances for Paul Lambert’s side last time out, netting on four occasions and contributing numerous man-of-the-match performances (notably against Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea) that resulted in him being voted Player of the Year by the supporters.

News of Delph’s willingness to stay is thus a welcome boost for Villains everywhere ahead of the new campaign. One suggests that Lambert should move quickly to tie the midfielder down to a new long-term deal, however, lest the club’s fortunes begin to slide and Delph experiences a change of heart.

Sean Donnelly

Tonev & Luna Set To Depart Villa Park?

The considerable overhaul that Aston Villa’s first-team squad that has undergone already this summer looks set to continue as Aleksandar Tonev and Antonio Luna have been left out of the 26-man squad that Paul Lambert has flown to America in order to partake in two pre-season friendlies against the Texas-based Major League Soccer duo of FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo later this week.

Tonev and Luna look set to join a fast growing list of departures from Villa Park this transfer window that has already seen winger, Marc Albrighton, and the once promising youngster, Nathan Delfouneso, released on free-transfers (the former has moved to the newly promoted Leicester City); striker, Jordan Bowery, move to Rotherham for an undisclosed fee; and Nicklaus Helenius and Yacouba Sylla move to out on season-long loan deals to Aalborg and Kayseri Erciyesspor respectively.

The impending sale of Luna and Tonev, on top of the out-going loan deals agreed for Sylla and Helenius, constitutes a damning indictment on the manner in which Villa conducted its transfer business in the previous summer. It is understandable that all of these players have been allowed to leave Birmingham after just one season in the Premier League owing to the fact that, to a man, they failed to make any real impact on the first team. What should worry Villa fans everywhere, however, is the fact that they were brought to the club in the first place.

Incompetent player recruitment on this scale is almost unprecedented in the English top-flight and is something typically associated with poorly managed newly promoted clubs. The recent cases of Cardiff and Queens Park Rangers, for example, have demonstrated the manner in which sides elevated from the Championship to the Premier League are frequently forced to undertake considerable restructuring of their first-team squads in order to cope with the increased standard of opposition that they are set to face in the coming campaign. This often sees the club in question begin to panic-buy over-hyped players with tactful agents from lesser European leagues on cut-price deals as time in the transfer window runs out.

It is very infrequent that any of these signings are cut-out for the English top-flight, however, and it is not a policy that Villa fans would like to see their club persist with into the future. The fact that this system of recruiting young players from lesser European leagues has been so swiftly abandoned, though, hardly offers any great degree of comfort for supporters; rather it reflects the perpetuation of the same lack of joined up thinking that led to the acquisitions of players like Tonev and Luna in the first place.

Villa have now lurched violently from the one ineffective extreme of signing a relatively unknown Bulgarian winger from Lech Poznan for a fee in the region of £2 million one season to loading up on consistently underperforming veterans of the English game like Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, and Phillip Senderos the next. Indeed, the only disheartening constant in this policy is the lack of any serious money being invested into a first-team squad that has now finished dangerously close to the relegation zone for three consecutive seasons.

Thus while few among the Villa faithful will mourn the loss of Tonev and Luna who made a combined 34 appearances during their single season in Birmingham, fans can be legitimately angered at the lack of basic planning and competence in the sphere of player recruitment that the duo’s uninspiring signing and swift departure shows up. One can only hope that Paul Lambert and his recruitment team have identified higher calibre and better experienced replacements for Luna and Tonev in the interim and that they will be given the financial backing required to carry new signings off.

Sean Donnelly

South Korean Star Set For Villa Switch?

Swansea’s South Korean international midfielder, Ki Sung-yeung, has emerged as the latest transfer target linked with a move to Villa Park this summer as Paul Lambert looks to press forward with a cut-price recruitment drive designed to ensure that the Villains maintain their top-flight status in the coming campaign.

The Scottish manager’s financial power has been greatly limited this pre-season owing to the fact that Villa’s owner, Randy Lerner, very publically put the club up for sale at the beginning of the summer. The American billionaire is determined to cut his losses on an investment plan that has cost his holding company, Reform Acquisitions Limited, in excess of £217 million during his eight year stint in Birmingham.

Ki’s addition would be the latest in a string of solid if uninspiring signings for Villa this summer. Lambert has placed a decided emphasis on the acquisition of proven Premier League talent in his recruitment plans to date, having so far brought in Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson, and Phillip Senderos on free transfers.

Ki would certainly correspond to this formula. The 25 year-old central midfielder has spent the majority of his playing career in Britain since leaving the K League Classic side, FC Seoul, for Celtic three years after making his professional debut in 2007, aged 18. Ki fast established his credentials as one of the foremost emerging talents in Asian football during his time at Seoul; his imposing physique, athletic dynamism, and hard running marked him out early as a warrant for the more robust European game.

Celtic clinched a £2.1 milion transfer for Ki in the 2009 January transfer window at the end of the K-League season. By October of the following campaign Ki had enshrined himself in the first XI at Parkhead and stood among the most technically accomplished midfielders in the SPL. Ki made 66 appearances for Celtic during his three year spell in Glasgow, winning one Scottish Cup and one SPL title before agreeing a £6 million move to Swansea in the summer of 2012.

Swansea had established themselves as one of the most attractive sides in the English game under Brenden Rodgers and Ki’s progressive passing game and technical elan was seen to fit comfortably with the philosophy that the Northern Ireland coach, and then Michael Laudrup, instilled at the South Wales club. Ki enjoyed a promising debut season in the Premier League, although he failed to replicate quite the same level of form that he had consistently displayed at Celtic. The highlight of Ki’s time in Wales was undoubtedly Swansea’s League Cup triumph over Bradford in February, 2013.

In the summer of 2013 Ki was surprisingly loaned out to Sunderland for the duration of the season where he featured prominently in a Gus Poyet side that only narrowly avoided relegation along with Aston Villa. The South Korean made 27 appearances for Sunderland last time out, contributing three goals. Ki went on to feature in all three of his national side’s games in the recent Brazil World Cup as South Korea exited in the group stage.

One suspects that Ki would constitute more a squad player than an automatic starter should his arrival to Villa Park come to pass. The Korean’s hard running and dynamic passing game could positively counterpoint Fabian Delph’s comparable midfield playing style and he would add some much needed depth to an area of the pitch in which Villa were at points exposed in the previous campaign. It is by no means a signing that will start drawing more fans to games, however, it may just be the sort of experienced and functional acquisition that the Birmingham club need if they are to remain in the Premier League for another season.

Sean Donnelly


Ron Vlaar Linked With Move Away from Villa Park

Reports have emerged linking Aston Villa’s Dutch international defender, Ron Vlaar, with a move away from the Birmingham club after the 29 year old put in a string of impressive performances during his national-side’s run to a third-place finish in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Vlaar’s transfer would come as a potentially crippling blow for Paul Lambert’s side ahead of what is a crucial Premier League season for Aston Villa following on from three consecutive bottom half of the table finishes. Manchester United or AS Roma have been mooted as Vlaar’s most likely destination should his departure come to pass.

Vlaar was ever-present at the heart of Louis Van Gaal’s three-man defence in Brazil and constituted an assured and calming presence alongside the highly rated but inexperienced Feyenoord duo of Martins Bruno-Indi and Stefan de Vrij. The Netherland’s manager, who is set to assume the running at Manchester United when the first-team squad depart for a pre-season tour of America later this week, is rumoured to be keen to bring Vlaar to Old Trafford to form part of a what will be a new look defence in the wake of the free-transfer departures of the Ferguson-era stalwarts, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

The highly rated teenage left-back, Luke Shaw, and the Atletico Bilbao midfielder, Angel Herrera, have already been added to a United squad undergoing wholesale restructuring in the wake of a dismal campaign under David Moyes the last time out. The Red Devils are reported to have forked out fees in excess of £30 million to secure both players and Vlaar would constitute an attractive cut-price option to bolster the centre of the defence.

Louis Van Gaal may well hope that the Dutchman’s experience and reliability under pressure will provide the sort of calm, moderating influence for a youthful Manchester United defence that it did for his national side in Brazil. At 29 Vlaar would not be a long-term replacement for the departing Vidic or Ferdinand but nor he would not block the first-team development of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones whom the United coaching staff hope will go on to form the defensive pillars of the post-Ferguson era team.

Serie A side, AS Roma, are also reported to retain an interest in Vlaar’s signature should Villa be unwilling to sell to a Premier League rival. The Italian giants excelled to a second place finish in Serie A last season under the influence of French coach, Rudi Garcia (brought in from Lille), and Roma possess the added incentive of being able to offer Vlaar Champions League football in the coming campaign where United are not.

Vlaar has impressed greatly in the Premier League since joining Villa from Feyenoord in the summer of 2012. The Dutchman has made 53 appearances for Villa to date, scoring two goals. He was named club captain for the 2012–13 season owing to the continued absence of Bulgarian midfielder, Stiliyan Petrov, as he battled cancer.

Vlaar’s aerial prowess and robust tackling foiled well last time out with the more languid, passing game of Irish youngster, Ciaran Clarke, and he would be difficult for Paul Lambert to replace with a player of equal talent given Villa’s current financial constraints. Lambert and the Villa faithful alike, therefore, will just have to hope that Philippe Senderos has been signed as cover for Vlaar and not as his replacement ahead of the new campaign.

Sean Donnelly


Aston Villa in Talks with Former Arsenal Striker

Reports have emerged from Birmingham today that Aston Villa are in talks with the former Arsenal centre forward, Nicklas Bendtner, over a free transfer move to Villa Park this summer. The Danish international has been out of contract since being released by the London club at the end of the previous campaign.

Lambert’s move for the troubled 26 year-old will undoubtedly divide Villa fans. Bendtner constitutes one of the many great unfulfilled talents to fall from grace in the Premier League in recent years. He has always been a player of undoubted pedigree and potential, however, difficulties with mentality and dedication appear to have prevented Bendtner from reaching the levels that many in the media and at Arsenal believed that he would when he arrived in London from Kjøbenhavns Boldklub as a seventeen year-old youth prospect.

The Dane is generally employed as a target-man type striker in the same vein as Christian Benteke and Libor Kozak; however, with the Belgium and Czech forwards absent from training with long-term injuries Lambert is determined to bolster his attacking options. The need for Villa to recruit more fire-power up-front has only grown more pressing in the past week since Jordan Bowery departed to Rotherham for an undisclosed fee while another Dane, Nicolas Helenius, looks set for a return move to Aalborg after a disappointing spell in England.

Bendtner is strong in the air and possesses a good first touch. The Dane also has the ability to interchange effectively with support players in the build-up phases of an attack owing to the fact that his physique enables him effectively to hold play up. In this context, Bendtner looks an ideal cut price back-up signing for Benteke; he is a forward in possession of many of the same physical attributes as the Belgium though he lacks Benteke’s technical competency and cutting edge on front of goal.

Should Lambert complete the signing of Bendtner (the Dane has also attracted the interest of Bundesliga outfit, Eintracht Frankfurt) it will be his second spell as a footballer in Birmingham. Bendtner made his initial mark on English football on loan at Villa’s city rival’s, Birmingham City, during their promotion winning campaign from the Championship in the 2007-08 season. The Dane played a prominent role in driving the Blues into the top-flight, netting 11 times in 42 appearances.

The Dane never managed to pin down a place in Wenger’s first XI at the Emirates upon his return to London. The form of luminaries such as Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Robin Van Persie understandably kept the Dane him out of the team and question marks pertaining to his work-ethic and commitment to the task of becoming a starter at Arsenal soon began to emerge.

Underwhelming loan spells at Sunderland and then Juventus followed for Bendtner as Wenger appeared to finally lose faith in a player he had once held such high-hopes for. During these loan periods worrying disciplinary issues arose: Bendtner was frequently spotted in Tyneside night clubs and most disconcertingly the Dane was arrested and cautioned for drunk driving by the Turin police.

Bendtner was a surprise member of Wenger’s 25 man Premier League squad last season. The Dane featured only owing to the fact that Arsenal failed to secure a striker to provide cover for Olivier Giroud. On 1 January 2014, Bendtner scored the winning goal against Cardiff in the 88th minute in a 2–0 Arsenal win, however, this would be the high-point of his season. An altercation involving a Copenhagen taxi during an unsolicited trip to his homeland in March saw Wenger exile Bendtner from the first-team squad for the final three months of the season and instead invest his trust in the young French forward, Yaya Sanogo.

Villa fans can only hope that a change of environment will revitalize Bendtner’s interest in committing himself to playing professional football. Perhaps more pertinently, though, the Villa faithful will have to hope that Bendtner is being signed as cover, and not as a replacement, for Christian Benteke.

Sean Donnelly


Chief Executive Paul Faulkner leaves Aston Villa

Depending on the perspective that one adopts, Aston Villa are currently undergoing either an optimistic phase of rebuilding and renewal after the club’s disappointing run of three consecutive bottom-half finishes in the Premier League, or a period of turbulent flux that looks set to destabilize the institution at all levels ahead of what is a crucial new season.

Shortly before the end of Villa’s massively underwhelming 2013/14 Premier League campaign, the club witnessed the departure of two long-term lieutenants of Manager, Paul Lambert, as both Assistant Manager, Ian Culverhouse, and Head of Football Operations, Gary Karsa, were dismissed following an internal investigation into as yet undisclosed off-field issues believed to be related to allegations of bullying.

Culverhouse and Karsa had worked alongside Lambert throughout the Scot’s fledgling managerial career in the lower divisions in England. The pair first worked with Lambert at Colchester before following the Scot to Carrow Road when he was appointed as Norwich City boss in 2009. Culverhouse and Karsa were then among Lambert’s first backroom appointments following his taking over at Aston Villa in the summer of 2012.

The duo’s departure from Villa Park, therefore, was widely seen as indicative of the kind of institutional malaise that appears to have engulfed the club since the departure of Martin O’Neill in 2010. The now Republic of Ireland manager resigned his position at Villa Park in protest at American owner, Randy Lerner’s, implementation of a new austerity regime designed to slash the club’s wage-bill by culling its highest earners, cashing-in on its best young talent (Young, Downing, Milner to name but a few), and investing in cut-price emerging players from lesser European leagues.

Culverhouse’s position was last week permanently replaced following the appointment of former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland captain, Roy Keane, as Lambert’s new Assistant Manager. The arrival of such a high-profile figure in the English game was by in large popularly received by the Villa faithful, many of whom are hopeful that Keane’s reputation and work-ethic will help to motivate a talented but deflated young squad and to lift them into the top-half of the league table once more.

Paul Faulkner’s decision to leave Villa Park, however, has taken away much of the good-feeling that the Keane appointment bred. The Chief Executive’s resignation has been seen as yet another demonstration of the decaying edifice of the Lerner regime in Birmingham. Faulkner was well-regarded in the game and had worked closely with Lerner in variety of business capacities prior to becoming involved with Villa.

It is believed that his decision to step down came in response to a difference of opinion with the owner over the manner in which the club would operate in the future. Specifically, Faulkner sought greater clarification over what his role would be in an administrative set-up greatly destabilized owing to the fact that the club was very publically put up for sale at the beginning of the summer.

Lerner is determined to cut his losses and depart Villa Park after eight years that have seen his holding company, Reform Acquisitions Limited, haemorrhage in excess of £217 million. Faulkner’s decision to resign, therefore, appears to be born of much of the same sense of frustration that the Villa fans currently feel supporting a club that appears to be listing at all levels from the board room to the dressing room.

A talented an ambitious Chief Executive like Faulkner does not carve himself out a career like the one that he has had by sitting around on sinking ships. His decision to step down thus constitutes a haunting reminder for the Villa faithful that in spite of the fact that Keane’s arrival may breathe some new life into the first-team dressing room ahead of the new campaign, Villa is now operating with an owner who has no interest in seeing the club achieve success on the pitch. And no club can hold out any realistic hopes for success without a forward drive an impetus from the very top of the administration. The arrested development that currently characterizes Aston Villa undoubtedly precipitated Faulkner’s departure and he may well not be the last-man of talent to depart Villa Park before Lerner’s sale is complete.

Sean Donnelly


Roy Keane Appointed to Aston Villa Assistant Manager Role

After weeks of frenzied media speculation Roy Keane was yesterday formally unveiled as Aston Villa’s new assistant manager ahead of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign. Keane, who is already employed as assistant to another former Villa boss, Martin O’Neill, at the Republic of Ireland, recently turned down the opportunity to take the manager’s position at Celtic. The Irishman stated during his debut press conference representing the Birmingham club that while he “cannot promise miracles” in his new role as Paul Lambert’s number two he hopes to contribute to some up-turn in the club’s fortune ahead of the new campaign.

Keane is in the process of re-building his managerial reputation after having endured underwhelming stints in charge of Sunderland and Ipswich. The Cork native started his management career impressively at the Stadium of Light, securing the Tyneside club automatic promotion to the Premier League in his first season after taking charge.

Keane assumed control at Sunderland with the Black Cats rooted to the bottom of the Championship table following four successive losses from their first four fixtures in the 2006/07 season. Following a raft of new signings, however, and the forcible imposition of a greater culture of professionalism at the club, Keane led Sunderland to secure the Championship title on the final day of the season, winning the Championship “Manager of the Year” award en route.

Sunderland’s return to the top-flight proved a more arduous test of Keane’s managerial abilities as his tactical acumen was exposed in a way that does happen in the Championship. The Black Cats struggled badly in the opening months of the season – a 7-1 defeat at Goodison park marked the undoubted nadir of the campaign – but a good run of form after Christmas saved the club from an immediate return to the second tier.

Already Keane’s abilities as a manager were coming under real scrutiny in the media. His signings, for example, were seen as unimaginative – too many players, the argument went, were coming from the discarded bin at Old Trafford or brought across the border from Celtic. Meanwhile, there were many commentators who felt that the club’s performances on the field were not commensurate with the level of investment in the playing staff that was taking place off it. In other words, Keane was not living up to his budget as Sunderland manager.

In December of the following season, with Sunderland eighteenth in the league, Keane would resign his position, citing differences with the 30% shareholder, Ellis Short, as the key reason for his departure off of the back of five losses in his previous six games. He would go on to endure a far less successful spell at Ipswich Town where he reigned from April 2009 to January 2011 with the club never really pressing for promotion. Ipswich and Keane did, however, suffer from a chronic lack of investment during this period; many commentators suggest that his performance at Portman Road was about par.

In spite of the fact that an automatic promotion followed by a successful Premier League survival campaign constitutes a promising start to a managerial career by almost anyone’s standards, Keane, it seemed, was subject to some greater expectation. In many people’s eyes this heavier media burden went a long way to prematurely ending his time at Sunderland and destabilizing a promising young managerial career. The weight of expectation on Keane “the manager” was of course a product of the fact that he was such a great player. Keane captained Manchester United to seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and a Champions League triumph during his twelve years at the club.

In this light Keane can be accurately be seen to have constituted the essential back-bone of the greatest squad that Alex Ferguson assembled during his twenty-six year reign at Old Trafford, and he was arguably the most important signing that the Scot ever made as United boss. And although Keane, by his own admission, was far from the most technically gifted footballer in a group that boasted talents like Paul Scholes, David Beckham, and Ryan Giggs among its ranks, he was by far the most influential.

Despite being massively talented, the huge success that Keane enjoyed throughout his playing career seemed to be a product more of a steely drive and determination to succeed than of any innate footballing gift. This influence undoubtedly rubbed off on those around him and throughout his career it was observed that Keane set the standards that the rest of the dressing room had to live up to.

Perhaps therein lay the problem for Keane “the manager.” The Irishman’s ascetic dedication to achieving perfection in every match was perhaps an appropriate standard to set for a dressing room composed of some of the most gifted footballers in the world at Manchester United. The players populating those Sunderland and Ipswich dressing rooms, however, simply did not possess the footballing ability and mentality that Keane demanded. The well-reported fissuring in the relationship between manager and players that occurred at both of these clubs during Keane’s tenure likely grew from that tension.

The hope for Villa fans is that we now possess a more measured, realistic, and calmer Keane; a man who with three years detachment from involvement in the club game has gained a more balanced perspective on what is to be expected from the average squad player at a middling Premier League club. By that same token, Villa fans and Paul Lambert alike will be hoping that the club’s new assistant manager has not lost any of that drive and desire to succeed that underpinned his career as a player. Because God knows that the current Villa playing staff could do with a Roy Keane in their midfield right now.

Sean Donnelly


Gardener and Robinson Tied Down to New Two Year Contract Extensions

Aston Villa fans everywhere received a welcome boost this week when on Monday (June 30) the club announced that the promising duo of dynamic central-midfielder, Gary Gardener, and pacey England Under-19s forward, Callum Robinson, each committed to a new two-year contract with the Birmingham club.

The commitment that the talented young pairing have demonstrated by extending their stay at Villa Park in spite of interest from suitors who stood to offer guaranteed first-team football in the coming season constitutes a welcome vote of confidence for a club that is at its lowest ebb since Doug Ellis sold the club to the American billionaire, Randy Lerner, in 2006.

Gardner (22) is a better established presence in the first team dressing room than Robinson, a man three years his junior. A product of the Villa youth academy which he joined in 2005 along with his older brother Craig (now of Sunderland), Gardener made his debut for the senior squad under Alex McLeish in 2011 during a 1-3 away victory at Stamford Bridge over Chelsea.

From this point Gardener became a consistent presence in the first team match-day squad, and he fast established himself as one of the brightest youth prospects at the club. Gardener performed impressively when introduced as a substitute in order to help shut games down, and his play was widely seen to be marked out by a maturity that preceded his years. Gardener’s playing style is characterized by a short, accurate passing game in possession as well as by powerful, energetic running in defence and in support of attacks.

Gardener’s impressive performances both at first team and at youth-level for Villa earned him call-ups to represent England at every age level as far as the Under-21 side for which he has scored twice in five appearances. Gardener earned his debut first team start in a 2-3 away victory at Wolves in the Premier League at the end of January, 2012. The severe illness that befell the then captain, Stiliyan Petrov, and the shortage in central-midfield that this created meant that Gardener became a consistent presence in the starting side until the end of the 2011/12 season.

In August 2012, however, Gardener’s impressive progress was halted when he sustained a severe Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury – the second of his young career – that ruled him out for eight months. After lengthy rehabilitation, Gardner returned to the Villa first team squad as an unused substitute against Chelsea on 11 May 2013 and he made his playing comeback on the final day of the 2012/13 season against Wigan. On 12 February 2014, Gardner joined Championship side Sheffield Wednesday on an emergency loan that lasted until March as he continued his recovery to full fitness.

The fact that the club have stuck so loyally by Gardner through these injury travails attests not only to the extent of his talents but also to the close institutional affiliation that the youngster has established with the Villa coaching staff and fans alike during his almost nine years at the club. This is a commitment and faith that Gardener says that he is determined to repay after having agreed this new deal; the club’s fans will hope that Gardener’s body allows him to consistently demonstrate his undoubted talent at Villa Park next season.

Callum Robinson, too, is a product of the Villa youth academy and his retention, like that of Gardner, is a reflection of the emphasis that the Lerner administration has placed on the promotion of youth talent in recent seasons as a means of cutting down on transfer expenditure. This policy revision followed the losses accrued during the opening seasons of Lerner’s tenure at the club where Martin O’Neill spent heavily in order to consistently compete for Champions League qualification. The now Republic of Ireland manager would resign from Villa Park over a lack of investment in the first-team squad in 2010.

Robinson possesses electric pace and a good eye for goal. His style of play has seen parallels drawn between him and the Arsenal and England forward, Theo Walcott. Again like Walcott, Robinson’s preferred role is to be deployed through the middle; however, his speed, agility, and relatively slight frame means that coaches are often tempted to play him in a wider attacking position.

One suspects that any first-team action that Robinson does see in the coming months will be wide of a central attacker as he is yet to develop the physical presence required to play up-front alone at Premier League level. Robinson has been capped at every level for England up to the Under 19s squad for whom he has netted on three occasions in five appearances. The nineteen-year-old made his first-team debut for Villa last season in a 0-4 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup.

Sean Donnelly