Premier League football has changed immeasurably since its formation in 1992.
Once a display of England's finest players and the home of many of its oldest and proudest clubs, the Premier League has grown to become an international spectacle with interest from around the globe and a host of foreign players making the headlines.
Few clubs understand this shift more than Aston Villa. With more than one hundred years of history, numerous domestic honours and an illustrious European Cup trophy to their name, Villa were long considered one of England's finest teams.
While Villa have not had as much success in the Premier League era, the team has remained a mainstay of the top flight and contended with the top teams as recently as 2010.
Furthermore, the club's youth academy was producing prospects with bright futures who seemed destined to blossom into talented players capable of helping Villa to compete with their heavily spending rivals.
Now, just a few years removed from their near misses at domestic trophies and a place in the Champions League, Villa are a team with a disillusioned owner and prospects who have failed to realize their potential. They have become constantly involved in relegation battles.
With Villa facing yet another flirtation with relegation, the fans are counting on 18-year-old Jack Grealish—Villa's latest golden boy—to buck the trend and help the team climb out of their slump and back to prominence.
With Grealish featuring heavily in pre-season preparations, Paul Lambert has been eager to gauge the young man's readiness to be thrown into the fire next season. The manager spoke with BBC WM 95.6 regarding the winger's performances: "He's got a lot of big players in front of him but he's got to try to get in that group...He's done really well on the [pre-season] tour. He didn't disgrace himself and more than held his own."
Grealish has a number of skills that set him apart. Despite his youth, he is physically strong and has good balance—important attributes in the physical Premier League.
His confidence on the ball is very impressive for his age, and he is not afraid to attack defenders, beating them with a combination of skillful dribbling and pace. When he does beat his man, Grealish has the quality to whip in a dangerous cross or test the keeper with a powerful drive.
In addition, he is well-positioned to take advantage of Villa's lack of quality on the wing. Charles N'Zogbia and Kieran Richardson will likely feature in those positions, but the former is returning from a season-long injury, while the latter may be deployed as a left wing-back instead.
From either flank or potentially even playing as a No. 10 in the middle of the park, Grealish has the opportunity to provide the creativity and flair that Villa have missed in recent years.
As important as his contributions on the pitch will be, what Grealish represents for the Villa fans is equally important. Despite producing a slew of talented youngsters in recent years, Villa's academy has failed to produce the team's next star.
For various reasons, Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Nathan Delfouneso and Craig Gardner did not live up to expectations. As Villa sold off their top players, these young prospects failed to step up and replace them and have all since left the club.
Similarly, the likes of Gary Gardner, Andreas Weimann, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker and Chris Herd have experienced similar struggles. These players have seen varied amounts of first-team action over the past few seasons and will have parts to play this year, but none of them has proved to be a truly dependable, impact player.
Grealish may just be the most talented player of the lot, and as a local lad his success would be a huge boost for the supporters who have been disappointed by the displays of the academy's products prior to the young Irishman.
Furthermore, Villa no longer have the means to compete financially with much of the rest of the league. The squad is in need of reinforcing, but until Randy Lerner sells the club the fans cannot count on a big-money transfer to improve the team.
Consequently, the performances of the club's young players will be increasingly meaningful this season, and all eyes will be on Grealish as the most prominent of Villa's youngsters to deliver.
With a month to go until his 19th birthday, Grealish is young enough that expecting too much of him is foolhardy and potentially dangerous; nonetheless, a run of impressive performances from him would be a beacon of hope for Villa fans in the challenging season to come.