What Does the Future Hold for Aston Villa's NextGen Champions?
No, not the UEFA Champions League, but the U19 NextGen series—the premier competition between world football's top academies.
The tournament, which sees the likes of Barcelona, Celtic, Ajax, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and more put their youth systems forward in an effort to prove they're the best, was introduced at the start of the 2011-12 season by UEFA.
Chelsea's run to the final saw them beat Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona before falling to the claret-and-blue side, whose Irish contingent carried them through the contest despite losing the first two games of the Group Stages.
There were several key players in Villa's winning side, and the names will be familiar to most fans who have made it down to Villa Park on a Tuesday night for a youth/reserve game or take a particular interest in academy football.
Captain Samir Carruthers was the driving force behind the entire campaign, but this is a man who knows pressure—Alex McLeish threw him on several times last season with the team battling for points to stay in the English Premier League.
The Irishman impressed in his cameos and has now impressed in his NextGen starts, filling out nicely with a bit of bulk to go with his great command of the field.
Michael Drennan's six goals were crucial in propelling Villa to the final, and while the striker sat out of the big contest, his contributions are not forgotten.
Stepping up to the mantle in the final with two penalties was Graham Burke—a man I've seen first-hand in action—and he has everything required to impress.
A long-shot threat, calmness of mind, an understanding of the game and a good pass make him an ideal deep-lying forward in the current era.
Of course, every player was a star, and to that effect Tony McAndrew deserves a ton of credit for his wonderful work year on year with the boys.
But where does this competition win leave the prodigious talents who lifted the trophy in Italy?
Many will point to the fact that the better 19-year-olds are already with their first-team squads, and while that's true, some obvious potential has graced this competition.
Hector Bellerin, Serge Gnabry (both Arsenal), Andreas Christensen, Nathan Ake (both Chelsea) and Laurentiu Branescu (Juventus) et al all played significant parts in the tournament.
Carruthers' talent has been evident for around 12 months, while high hopes for Burke and Drennan have been replaced by genuine belief.
All of Villa's youngsters—from Lewis Kinsella to Jack Grealish—played a huge part in the win, and these youngsters couldn't find themselves at a better club to make an impact.
Chances to step from academy to first-team are limited nowadays, but the club based in B6 recently had its spine removed and remains desperate to rebuild some depth.
You might see up to two players from Arsenal and Chelsea's NextGen squads given a shot at the first-team squads, but Villa could be looking at up to six.
Winning the premier tournament for their age group definitely helps, and the Republic of Ireland's youth coaches will be especially delighted with their lads' progress.
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