Chief Sports Writer Hyder Jawad hails the Academy which is churning out fresh talent...
David O'Leary has never attached much significance to the FA Youth Cup. For the Aston Villa manager, all that matters is how many youth players flourish and become regular members of the firstteam squad.
When Villa won the FA Youth Cup in 2002, there was a perception that their future was in safe hands. This was the finest crop of home-grown players seen at the club since Villa won the same competition in 1980.
But now, at last, the fruits of the 2002 triumph are being enjoyed. Four members of that winning team have played for Villa in the Premiership this season, giving ample evidence for those who believe that the club's youth academy is the best in England.
There have been some surprises. Stefan Moore was the star of 2002 yet he failed to make the grade at Villa Park and has turned up in London, playing for Queens Park Rangers.
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Only Wayne Rooney, who played for the Everton team that lost 4-2 on aggregate to Villa in the 2002 final, eclipsed Stefan Moore over the two legs. Even then, however, there was a view that Luke Moore, Stefan's younger brother, was the player on whom Villa put much emphasis.
Luke Moore is now a firstteam regular and, to great acclaim, became the first player in the Premiership this season to score against Chelsea. Luke Moore would probably not make the first team if every striker was fit but he is patient, quick and enthusiastic.
Liam Ridgewell has just signed a new contract and appears to be the most mature member of the 2002 Youth Cup team. He exudes composure and has made a name for himself as a central defender who is keen and willing to learn. Note, too, Ridgewell's sweet left foot and versatility.
Peter Whittingham, another player with a good left foot, has played for Villa this season but has since joined Derby County on loan.
But the jewel in the crown is Steven Davis, the Northern Ireland international midfield player, who emerged seemingly from nowhere last season and has been one of Villa's best players this season.
A midfield player with quick feet, good vision, and a desire to shoot on sight, Davis has been one of O'Leary's success stories.
Davis played in the Northern Ireland team that defeated England in a World Cup qualifying match last month and scored his first international goal when his country lost 3-2 at home to Wales last Saturday.
And to think that O'Leary once did not appear to prioritise Villa's youth academy. To be fair, O'Leary made good use of young players during his time as manager of Leeds United, and he has not been afraid to make use of Villa's young players.
Much of this is because O'Leary is working to a tight budget and has seen his squad decimated by injuries for most of 2005.
But facts are facts and Villa's youth academy is perhaps the best in the country, eclipsing those of Manchester United and Liverpool.
True, the United youth team of 1992 is probably the most successful of all-time, while Liverpool's of 1996 produced Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. But Villa are being rewarded for their investment in young players, a view welcomed by Ridgewell.
"There are three of us from that side currently playing for the first team at Villa," Ridgewell said.
"That is not a bad strike rate. Myself, Davo and Luke Moore are all playing, while Peter Whittingham has also played for the first team this season.
"Other players from that crop are also earning a living in football - look at James O'Connor and Stephen Cooke at Bournemouth, Stefan Moore at Queens Park Rangers and Wayne Henderson on loan with Brighton.
"That says a lot about the academy at Villa.
"Often when you win a competition like the FA Youth Cup, the players just drift out of the game over the next few years, but quite a few of us are still playing and making progress."
It is significant how unassuming and modest the likes of Ridgewell, Davis, Luke Moore and Whittingham appear to be.
All are balanced and mature and this suggests that their education at Bodymoor Heath has been wide and varied and, most importantly, successful.
Much of the praise should go to Tony McAndrew and Gordon Cowans, two former professionals, who see the value in ensuring that young players learn to keep their feet on the ground.
You only have to witness Steve Davis to see how a talented player can seem so unassuming. He is a hyperactive lion on the pitch. Off it, he is so shy you wonder if he is the same man.