In one of the first articles I ever wrote for Soccerlens, I delved into potential candidates for McClaren’s new-look England squad. As in this article, I employed a pun from the world of automobiles in the title, asking myself, and the readers, whether McClaren could get England off to a “racing start” in the Euro 2008 qualifiers.
One of my most fervently worded proposals was for the inclusion of Gareth Barry into the England squad — a suggestion McClaren heeded when his own fate as manager had been stringently put into question, and a move which worked as I had predicted, rendering the England midfield both more dynamic and more efficient in its use of the ball, whilst eliciting a couple of accomplished performances from the oft-woeful-in-an-England-shirt Steven Gerrard.
With less than a month to go before Fabio Capello’s first game in charge of the English national team, against Switzerland, it is again to Aston Villa’s young charges that I entrust the future of England’s international endeavours; and this in a weekend that saw two Ferdinands score, as well as a well-deserved victory for Middlesbrough’s English kids. Villa have, rather ironically I might add, developed a young, exciting and enthusiastic squad full of English players, under the custodianship of Martin O’ Neill, who many will agree ought to have been given the England job back in 2006.
Whilst Villa’s strapping Scandinavians have hogged the headlines as of late – both Mellberg and Laursen have been scoring goals, whilst the contractual situation of the duo is up in the air, with Mellberg in particular linked with a move abroad, Juventus being the favourites for the Swede’s signature — it is the firm base of English talent that will excite England’s Italian taskmaster.
In goal, Scott Carson has been a picture of consistency, and although the team have conceded the second most goals out of any team in the top half (28, 1 fewer than Blackburn), I can remember few serious errors in the league on the part of the Villa goalkeeper, who has made some 45 saves so far this season. Carson’s distribution has also improved immeasurably, a fact reflected in the 2 assists he has made from his own area.
In defence, it is largely a foreign affair, although Curtis Davies has recovered well from and responded strongly to his horror-show against Leicester City in the Carling Cup, and Zat Knight has performed assuredly on numerous occasions. Indeed, should one of Laursen or Mellberg depart for sunnier and loftier climes in the near future, Villa can turn to one of Knight, Davies or academy graduates Gary Cahill and Craig Gardner, both of whom have shown promise, with few concerns of a leaking backline.
Villa’s midfield is dictated by the superb Gareth Barry, who has a special place in my heart, since I have been said to look like the “man with two first names”, as he was baptised by the drunkards in my local pub in Finchley. Barry has grown from strength to strength under O’ Neill’s guidance, and there is clearly a great deal of respect between captain and gaffer. Barry, who has played every minute of Villa’s 22 Premiership games this season, is a cultured passer who can shoot, dribble and cross with equal aplomb He also plays with a zeal and commitment that are a joy to behold, and often gets in vital tackles when faced with a break-away attacker from the rival team. And given England’s lack of mettle from 12 yards, Barry’s coolness from the penalty spot could well prove useful, although none of the four goals he has scored this season have come from penalties.
Alongside Gareth Barry in the Villa engine room is Nigel Reo-Coker, a player who has re-established and re-invented himself since moving from the other Claret-and-Blue Premier League side in the summer. Playing in a more defensive role, Reo-Coker has been something of a revelation, getting in more tackles than any other player in the top flight (although it must be admitted that his success rate is not quite as high) and offering an image of determination and grit quite alien to the arrogance and disinterest of which he was accused at West Ham last season. Reo-Coker clearly has improvements to make to his game — more goals are a necessity, but this will have to wait until he learns to combine his defensive responsibilities with attacking link-up, a process which could culminate in the transformation of Reo-Coker into one of the better “box-to-box” midfielders in the Premiership. However, the progress shown under Ulsterman O’Neill in this short time is enough to suggest that such a metamorphosis is well under way. In reserve, another academician, Isaiah Osbourne, has shown quality when called upon, and will surely develop his potential under Leicester boss Ian Holloway.
Up front is where the real fun starts, with a trio of young Englishmen all performing well in different positions and helping John Carew to exhibit some of his previously unfulfilled potential. I can still remember hearing some five years ago about the Moores, two stars of the Aston Villa academy and the Birmingham club’s FA Youth Trophy victory of 2002. Unfortunately, both of the brothers with the famous surname have somewhat failed to maximise their potential in this early stage of their careers: whilst Stefan, at one point rated as a better prospect than Wayne Rooney, languishes in the Championship, older brother Luke has had a lukewarm 2007, playing more than 800 minutes, often promising much but delivering somewhat less, with just 1 goal to his name this season.
Meanwhile, playing almost as a traditional winger, Ashley Young has been one of the unsung stars of Villa’s march to 6th position this season, and the Youngster has been in particularly scintillating form in recent weeks. When Martin O’ Neill shelled out over £9 million for Young in January 2007, many questioned his judgment. Young had only proved himself at a small club, and largely at a lower level, they argued, much in the same way as the credentials of Derby’s Giles Barnes have been doubted by some columnists. A slow start to his Villa career, other than a goal on his debut, seemed to confirm this rebuke: Young often looked off-the-pace, and was guilty of losing possession far too easily. However, Martin O’Neill continued to insist that Young was one for the future, and this future has come around with great celerity. Known for his marauding, penetrating runs, Young has linked up excellently with Gabriel Agbonlahor, whilst his pin-point delivery from set-pieces has in the main gone unnoticed by pundits who have preferred to heap plaudits upon Mellberg and Laursen. Despite the fact that Young has 12 assists so far this season — a higher total than any other player in the division — one gets the impression that he has by no means reached the peak of his potential, and he can surely better the 2 goals he has scored so far this campaign.
The final member of this trio, Gabriel Agbonlahor, has had a breathtaking last year and a half, making himself a firm fixture of an excellent England Under-21 team and fully cementing his place in the Aston Villa frontline. Agbonlahor, who actually played two games for Young’s Watford in 2005 (though I cannot find out if the two ever played together), offers pace in abundance, trickery, commitment, and an eye for goal which has been unluckily thwarted of late by the post and crossbar (his youth and reserve team record make frightening reading: 62 goals in 71 appearances for the youth team, and 19 goals in 38 appearances for the reserves). Agbonlahor, together with Barry, is the emblem of O’Neill’s rejuvenated Villa side: hungry, committed, loyal to the manager and talented. Linked with Arsenal, the sky is the limit for a player who won the Premier League Player of the Month award in December 2006, and has the enviable record of having scored against all of the “big four” during his debut season for the club.
Agbonlahor, Barry, Carson, Davies, (and Young), Fabio Capello must look no further than the ABCD(Y) of Aston Villa in his English lessons and for his first squad as England head coach.