Most 21-year-olds would be happy with the key to the door; Aston Villa youngster Craig Gardner has plenty more opportunities open to him. The Yardley-born youngster is one of those players who grew up supporting the club he now represents on a regular basis. And if pulling on the claret-and-blue shirt is not enough of a thrill, he is also now an England Under-21 international.

Gardner was among those players despairing at his team's continued inability to beat Manchester United, particularly after his late header after coming on as a substitute almost put his side back in contention in Saturday's FA Cup third-round tie.

Yet he is adamant Villa can put the game behind them and head off in search of their Holy Grail this season of qualifying for European football.

Gardner said: "There is certainly a hoodoo on us every time we play Manchester United, but they are a really hard team to play and I think we actually did very well. We were just unlucky to concede two late goals.''

The youngster, who worked his way up through the ranks after starting as an academy player, has made 17 appearances for Villa this season and scored three goals. He continued: "I think every single player played their part against United and we should have got some-thing. When I was sitting on the bench before I came on, I thought we would nick it. We were outplaying them and we stifled them. I'm sure United will have gone away relieved they got something out of this game.''

The match gave Gardner the chance to face two of his favourite players in Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and their skills were not lost on the youngster. He said: "Ronaldo's one of the best in the world but Freddie Bouma and Olof Mellberg kept him out and he hardly got the ball until Rooney came on.

''I think the Villa players showed how good they can be at going forward; we were in their faces and I think teams know when they come to Villa Park that we will always give them a game. We have to go back into the league again now against Reading this weekend. We will have a few extra days off now over the season, during the breaks for the Cup, but that can only help us concentrate on the task of getting into Europe.''

Gardner, who broke into the Villa team two years ago with a debut appearance on Boxing Day 2005 against Everton, believes he and Villa's other young talents will learn a lot under manager Martin O'Neill. He said: "I will never forget my debut. That's something that will always be with me, running on in front of all those people.

''I've learned a lot since then but I still have a lot to learn. The manager instils confidence in us and stresses the importance of working hard which suits me because my game is all about hard work.''

Having signed a new four-year deal with Villa this season, he added: "I'm still young and can't expect to play in every game, even though I want to. I know I have to be patient but I will just keep on going and play as well as I can and hopefully keep scoring a few goals.

''To play for my country is also a major honour. I never played international football at youth level so it is great to have finally made the grade."