Young makes his mark

And few who regularly watch the quick-footed Ashley Young would disagree that the now 24-year-old has indeed developed into a formidable opponent, writes Richard Brown.

For most managers the January sales are only to be entered as a last resort, but for Martin O’Neill, he must look back at the start of 2007 as one of his finest moments in the transfer market.

Three days into the mid-season window, the Aston Villa boss agreed a GBP8million fee with Watford for the then 21-year-old Ashley Young — and the prestigious winger has gone from strength to strength since his big-money move.

Stunning goals and industrious assists have followed in the claret and blue of Villa, leading to England caps and praise as Young has evolved into one of the best attacking prospects in world football. So much so, that further lucrative deals with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona have since been mooted, but O’Neill will take some persuading to let his star man leave Villa Park.

“I think he is a world-class performer, and I don’t use that word too often,” the Northern Irishman recently admitted. “I see a lot of games in Europe, I watch a lot of football, and you see a lot of players in the game who are very functional. Some are decent, some are more than decent and some are very, very good. And then you have the players who are absolutely exceptional. And Ashley Young is absolutely exceptional.”

And few who regularly watch the quick-footed winger would disagree that the now 24-year-old has indeed developed into a formidable opponent. However, it was not always plain sailing for this particular London-born star.

He was originally knocked back as a teenager from Watford, but persisted with his local side and eventually earned a short-term deal under the then boss Ray Lewington, who handed Young his debut at 18 in 2003. That taster was developed throughout the 2003-04 season with 34 appearances in a tough season of relegation survival for the Hornets.

In his early years, Young was more of an out-and-out winger, but Aidy Boothroyd’s intervention during his time as boss at Vicarage Road saw a shift in position to a more direct forward-like player, more in the mould of a Cristiano Ronaldo than someone such as Aaron Lennon. He is still a long way off the Portugal international’s talents, but 15 goals in a single season persuaded several Barclays English Premier League clubs that Young was a talent worth investing in, and despite the efforts of Fulham and West Ham, it was O’Neill who won the race to sign him.

And the former Celtic and Leicester boss has been happy to watch his signing blossom. “I think the speed of his improvement has surprised a lot of people,” he added. “He has developed enormously and I think he has surpassed expectations. He has far from reached his peak. If you look at other top-quality players, who are absolutely brilliant — people like (Lionel) Messi and Ronaldo — you ask ‘how can they improve?’ They just do. They just get better. They see the game differently than they might have done three years earlier.”

Such comparisons inevitably flatter, but 21 goals from over 100 appearances in his three years as a Villa player highlights his ability, while the prolific goalscoring records of his team-mates Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew also compliment Young’s contribution to the team’s cause.

International recognition finally came in September 2007 as Villa established a growing presence in the England set-up, alongside the call-ups of Agbonlahor, Gareth Barry and James Milner. Young earned his debut in a friendly against Austria and Fabio Capello’s arrival has meant no less of an involvement for the Midlands club in the international arena, and he has now accumulated six caps, likewise Milner, while Agbonlahor has three.

And, with a World Cup looming, being a part of the national set-up is unsurprisingly on his mind. “It is in the back of my head,” Young recently stated. “Hopefully I will make it come the end of the season. I’m a person with ambitions; I’ve had a few caps and I want to add to that, but there are more important things, like the Premier League.”

Pushing on for a top-four spot in the EPL remains Villa’s biggest challenge of the season, although the English League Cup semi-final with Blackburn will not be dismissed as inconsequential. But whatever happens this season, O’Neill must cherish his actions early in 2007, while his only hope for the year ahead is that his star man is still a Villa player come 2011.

Young was once reportedly robbed of a diamond encrusted watch while at the wheel of his GBP60,000 BMW.

Factfile Position: Midfielder Club: Aston Villa D.O.B: 9/7/1985 England Caps: 6 England Goals: 0 England Debut: v Austria, September 2007 Moment to remember:

Last season’s injury-time winner in a thrilling game against Everton at Goodison Park will be difficult to top.

Moment to forget:

This time last year, Young was facing criticism for a two-footed lunge on Sunderland’s Dean Whitehead for which the Villa star received a red card.

© PA Sport, 2010, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited. Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.