Aston Villa Academy: The impressive new kids on the block

Aston Villa's Freya Gregory.
Aston Villa's Freya Gregory celebrates after scoring against Birmingham City at the Stadium, Solihull. (Photo by Nick Potts)

Aston Villa are relatively new to the Women’s Super League and they have big ambitions. Villa’s Academy team are also new and currently they are exceeding all expectations.

Villa proudly finished top of the FA WSL Academy League and their success has not gone unnoticed. This included a 6-3 victory over the hugely respected Manchester City development squad.

The Academy team uses a brand new state-of-the-art training ground at Bodymoor Heath. The impressive complex sits alongside Villa’s expansive first team facilities. The club owners are fully supportive of both their men’s and women’s teams, which includes their Academy and Regional Talent Centre.

The club has created a policy of build from within. During their inaugural season, three Academy players were deservedly awarded professional contracts. Namely, Olivia McLoughlin, Freya Gregory, and Isobel Goodwin.

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McLoughlin and Gregory have already made their first team debuts. Previous interim Head Coach Marcus Bignot included both players in several games and they each made a significant contribution.

McLoughlin stepped into a defensive midfield role to help protect Villa’s vulnerable backline. Gregory provided more options up front and she famously scored her first WSL goal in front of her old club, Birmingham City.

Crossing the divide

A little more than a year ago, Academy manager Jack Peel made one of the hardest decisions of his career. Peel was doing extremely well at Birmingham City, working alongside Blues Youth Development coach Dudley Holloway.

Birmingham, with the smallest squad in the league, were hit by multiple injuries and in 2019/20 they were forced to call upon their Academy players. No fewer than six Blues Academy players were drafted into the first team squad and in particular, the likes of Lily Simkin and Freya Gregory were very impressive.

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When the pandemic first took hold in April 2020, Peel had to think very carefully about his future. During these very uncertain times, he took the brave decision to cross the divide and accept the job as Aston Villa’s Academy Manager. A number of Blues players also put their trust in Villa and followed Peel shortly afterwards.

Speaking to Peel 15 months on he reflects on this career-changing moment with a smile on his face. As much as Peel absolutely loved his time at Blues, he decided to take a risk and move into unchartered territories. Ex-Blue Cristina Torkildsen had already moved across to become Villa’s Youth Technical Director but the U21s division was totally brand new.

FA WSL Academy League

Last season there were 14 teams in the academy league. This included all 12 clubs from the WSL plus Liverpool and Ipswich Town.

The number of games played by each team was extremely unbalanced due to clubs having to conform to Elite Protocols during the pandemic. Some teams only played a single league match whilst others like Manchester City and Everton managed to play eight.

Villa played six Academy league games, winning all of them, resulting in a 100% track record and finishing top of the league. This included impressive wins against Everton, Man City and Bristol who they beat 8-1.

But the football didn’t stop there…

Development time is key

In order to get vital development game time in, Villa have been playing as many games as they can.

In total, despite the pandemic, Villa U21s played an incredible 37 games last season. This included Tier 2 and Tier 3 sides plus a number of Boys teams on top of fulfilling their WSL Academy league commitments.

Peel explained to Her Football Hub: “We’ve got to try and expose the players to senior football alongside their development football. We’ve balanced playing Boys teams with a mix of Tier 3 sides like Derby, Nottingham Forest, Watford, and West Brom.”

Villa put six past West Brom but the matches against Forest and Derby were much closer affairs, with Villa still coming out on top. They also played Charlotte Healy’s Manchester United Academy team four times with results going both ways.

Peel went on to say: “We felt we were comfortable about them and we looked to stretch the group and played Coventry United, Charlton and Blackburn [all in the Women’s Championship]. It gives them the senior exposure they need to be able to sustain a place in our first team. We want players to be able to thrive in the first team environment and not just cope.”

Career progression

First team Head Coach Carla Ward has also joined the Villans from local rivals Birmingham City. Regarding Ward’s appointment, Peel expressed how delighted he is to have her at the club.

“Carla did a fantastic job at Blues with very little resources to work with. She’s very much a people manager and can bring the best out of anyone.”

Jack is certain there are plenty more first team promotions to come. It’s an exciting career path for the youngsters especially as they can combine it with a college course on a Dual Careers Pathway.

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Villa’s youngsters have also been recognised widely at International level. McLoughlin, Gregory, Laura Brown and Missy Goodwin have all been selected for the England Women’s Under 19s fixture camp. Additionally, Welsh trio of Mary McAteer, Lauren Purchase and Katie Ward all received call-ups to Wales’ U19s training camp.

After a fantastic season the team were rewarded by the club with the privilege of playing their final match at Villa Park. It was a very memorable occasion for all the players and staff involved. Arsenal Academy came out on top, 3-2 winners, but the memories will live on in the young Villans.

Future is bright in claret and blue

Next season the WSL Academy League should be back to normal with all 12 teams playing a full fixture list. Ultimately, this will benefit all senior teams in the WSL.

As a club, Aston Villa are fully backing their Academy setup. They have invested heavily and are already reaping the rewards.

First team Coach Ward is known for handing opportunities to up-and-coming players. Therefore expect to see further exciting players step up to the first team next season.

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