Aston Villa’s rampant lion has a history of sitting on the proud chests of some iconic centre-backs down the years, from Paul McGrath to Martin Laursen – no-nonsense defenders have been a staple part of many a top side at Villa Park in years gone by.
Not nearly as recognised amongst his greater mortals yet, Ezri Konsa has continued to display a promise that will undoubtedly secure his place amongst Villa heroes, while the prospect of playing for the Three Lions at major tournaments in the coming years is also very much in his favour.
Schooled on the very pitches that his current tutor, John Terry learnt his trade, Konsa’s grounding on the Wanstead Flats pitches of East London was one that many England internationals, including the likes of Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell, Ledley King, and even former Villans, Ugo Ehiogu and Jlloyd Samuel all also enjoyed.
It’s Senrab F.C who sought after the next generation of footballers coming off East London’s streets and MUGA’s. For Konsa, an upcoming defender basing his game off Rio Ferdinand, he’d be the next cab off the rank at this famous Sunday League club.
At the age of 11, Konsa then signed for Charlton Athletic, who for years have produced some top talent despite fishing alongside five Category 1 academies in London as well as local Category 2 rivals Millwall and Crystal Palace.
It was Konsa’s versatility that helped the young defender stand out and impress Charlton bosses from a young age.
“I was a centre-half at the time but for the first couple of seasons, I played right-back here and then got moved into central midfield,” Konsa remembered.
“It’s a good thing to be versatile. It means I can play wherever the gaffer wants to put me.”
After earning his first professional contract with the club in December 2015, Charlton boss Russel Slade opted to put his trust in the 19-year-old for the following season with the pressure of a relegation battle behind the Addicks. Instead, a League One campaign was ahead for Konsa.
In his breakthrough 2016-17 season, Konsa scooped the club’s Young Player of the Year after making 39 appearances in a multitude of positions across the defence and midfield. All the while performing at a level good enough to attract interest from Premier League clubs as well as nailing down his place at The Valley through three successive managerial changes.
With a handful of clubs circling the defender, Konsa’s final boss at Charlton, Karl Robinson tipped him for the very top.
“He’s the best young centre-back in the country. There’s nobody at his age better than Ezri Konsa – fact,” said Robinson in 2018.
“Everyone in the Premier League is looking at him. Stand up and show how good you are. Believe in your talent.
“Sometimes it looks like he doesn’t care but he loves the game. He needs to really let that talent flourish. I know if he does he’ll be one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League. He will be a Premier League centre-back, so he needs to believe in himself.”
Konsa’s story is one of a young footballer fulfilling a destined potential, but for every achievement attained and lyrical waxed from his former bosses, Aston Villa fans know all too well the heights that the 23-year-old can reach.
During what is only his second Premier League campaign, Konsa became the only centre-back to play over 1,000 minutes of football and deny any opposition player dribbling past him, as he became a key performer for Dean Smith’s European-chasing side this term.
Developing at a rate of knots under Dean Smith and John Terry
After signing for Villa almost two years ago now, Konsa’s development serves as proof that Smith can nurture a talent once labelled ‘the best young centre-back in the country’. Still only in the infancy of his professional years despite racking up 133 club appearances before joining Villa in 2019, the defender has a wise head on his young shoulders.
After all, being given a level of tutelage that many young centre-backs would crave is not to be sniffed at. Konsa is developing under the watchful eye of a Premier League great. He told talkSPORT: “Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, they were the ones I was looked up to growing up.
“John and I have been doing a lot of one-to-one sessions before training, after match days, watching my clips. I’ve been asking him questions on what I need to do to improve, what I need to do to stay at the highest level and maintain a good mentality.
“You know what, after watching my clips with him, his main advice is to train hard, keep your training standards high and it will come back on the pitch. So the main thing is training how you play.”
As a lower-league centre-half in his playing days too, Villa’s head-coach, Smith had tracked Konsa’s development through the EFL before plotting another move for the former Under-17 World Cup winner two summers ago.
Konsa’s three-year spell in the EFL began with Charlton before Smith and Brentford opened the door for a lasting career at the top. By the time Konsa had turned 20, he’d already made more appearances than most professionals have in their entire careers – making over 100 under four different managers.
So jetting off to the United States after penning a long-term deal with Villa alongside his new teammates wouldn’t phase the young defender whose career has taken him from League One to Wembley cup finals in the space of two years.
It was Villa’s tour of Minnesota that gave Smith a second look at the player he’d bought from Charlton for a mere £2.5 million when at the Brentford helm. Villa’s boss knew from the start that Konsa was capable of making it in the top flight.
“Ezri fits the profile of the type of player we were searching for,” Smith said after signing Konsa for a second time, last July.
“It helps that Richard O’Kelly and I have worked with him before. He’s a high-potential player who I believe can step up to the Premier League and I’m really looking forward to working with him again.”
The centre-back was among a host of players who got their first taste of top-flight football with Villa last season after the club was tasked with replacing 13 players who’d left Villa Park after promotion was achieved at the third time of asking in 2018.
Konsa had to wait up to three months for his full Premier League debut after Tyrone Mings and Björn Engels formed an early seasons partnership. But after starting in a defeat at Molineux in November 2019, Konsa would only miss three of Villa’s 26 remaining league fixtures.
Smith’s side were required to pull off the great escape to avoid relegation come July after the Premier League’s coronavirus suspension halted proceedings, and Konsa stepped up to play a key role in Villa’s bid for survival.
The defender believes that a testing experience in his first Premier League campaign has only made himself and the Villa team stronger.
Before the 2020/21 season began, Konsa said: “It’s a great opportunity to build again. I believe we will do much better this season.
“We know how the Premier League is now. We have played against the top teams and know how they play.
“It is a second season for us now and time to push on and get into a better position this season. We want to finish as high as possible and build on how we finished last season.”
Now, Villa are plotting to fast-track their assault on the league’s upper echelons, with records broken left and right this season, despite being resigned to relegation with four games left to play last season.
As 2020 drew to an end, Villa became the first Premier League side since the turn of the millennium to have climbed more Premier League places than any other team in a single calendar year, apart from Leicester who ascended from bottom place to second en route to their title parade in 2015.
Though, Villa did become the first team since Claudio Ranieri’s side to have started the calendar year in the relegation zone and end it in a European spot. Sitting pretty in fifth place as New Year’s rolled around, Konsa had come into his own, while forming a key part of the solid base in which Villa have built upon this season.
Formidable partnership: Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings
After Villa’s 1-0 win over Leeds United, Emiliano Martínez recorded his 13th clean sheet of the league campaign, and while Konsa and his partner in crime, Tyrone Mings exhibited the qualities that have made Smith’s side such a tricky proposition this season, it seems that Villa have never looked back from Project Restart.
Konsa was a key target for Smith who was eager to trigger the former England Under-21centre-back’s £12 million release clause after Villa secured promotion to the Premier League.
Alongside Mings, the pair have formed an effective defensive base to build on.
“I want to continue building my partnership with Tyrone. I feel like we grew as the season went on, especially in the last few games,” Konsa said ahead of the new 2020/21 campaign.
“It was a dream come true to play in the Premier League. I enjoyed every minute. I am learning every day and with help from the coaches and my teammates, I can only get better.
“It was a tough end to the season. It was something I believed we could do. We all had that belief and you could see the first game we went back. It was an intense last couple of games but we got through it.”
Toiling with relegation for most of the campaign and coming out the other side can be the making of character, but in fact, it was Konsa and Mings’ mentality that breathed confidence in the dressing room all along.
It didn’t take long for the young defender to become a popular figure in the dressing room as social media picked up on his bromance with centre-back partner Mings. Singing along to Dawn Penn’sYou Don’t Love Me’, as Villa’s pre-season preparations got underway last season, the two danced in towels after a gruelling fitness session in Minneapolis.
Away from the training ground, the two are also well placed in the hearts of Villa fans, especially after pledging to replace any shirts fans bought for the new season with their old numbers on. Konsa swapped his number 15 to four while Mings traded in number 40 to five.
Olof Mellberg, Ron Vlaar and Gareth Southgate have all worn the number four shirt since the turn of the millennium, and it’s no secret that Konsa is firmly in Villa’s plans as Smith heads one of the more exciting and ambitious projects in English football.
Villa know if they’re to realise their hefty goals, keeping hold of prized assets Jack Grealish, John McGinn, Mings and Douglas Luiz is important, but recruiting a certain quality of player is also vital, and in doing so beating other clubs to the signature of some European stars.
Konsa was reportedly of interest to both Merseyside clubs, Liverpool and Everton after his impressive success stories with Charlton and Brentford. Likened to fellow former Addicks graduate, Joe Gomez, Konsa was in fact close to joining Everton according to ESPN who noted Arsenal’s long-standing interest – though Villa boss Smith eventually proved to be the biggest lure of them all.
“He’s been a true believer in me from when I joined Brentford,” Konsa said of his manager, Smith.
“He’s had that trust in me by playing me week in, week out in the Championship. So for me, it was a no-brainer when Aston Villa came calling.”
So focused on the pull of developing under Smith – a coach he’d enjoyed his best football with at Griffin Park – Konsa might’ve been slightly blinded by the sheer size of the club he was joining.
“I knew, in my head, that it was a famous, old club but I didn’t realise the size and potential until I stepped through the door,” Konsa told Villa TV.
“To see it with my own eyes – the training ground, the stadium – was amazing.”
“And, the fans too. Their support so far has been crazy. To have that many watching us in pre-season alone was incredible – it’s really fantastic to be here,” he added.
‘Having to pinch myself’ at Aston Villa and England prospects
Konsa might’ve landed on his feet having joined in his words an ‘amazing’ club with a manager he personally selected to play under but to reach the top of his ceiling, it can’t always be an arm around the shoulder relationship.
Smith revealed he “had a pop at” Konsa for allowing Dwight Gayle to ghost in and score a soft opener for Newcastle as Villa got to grips with Project Restart football in June.
Speaking after salvaging a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park, Smith said: “You can’t account for a mistake. Ezri’s gone to sleep and I’ve had a bit of a pop at him in the dressing room after because he needs to learn from it.
“He’s a young player and will be better for it but, given the situation we’re in at the moment especially given the video work we’ve done for the game, he gets attracted to a wide player when he should be inside covering Kortney. It should have been a simple run coming onto it but he doesn’t and Dwight gets a simple goal.”
At Bodymoor Heath, Konsa is surrounded by the correct experience and level of personnel required to meet the high standards that the Premier League sets on any given weekend, but earning praise in his first full top-flight campaign despite only turning 22 last season is even more promising.
Villa’s cult hero Alan Hutton knows what it takes to win over a passionate fanbase, and is pleased with Konsa’s early showings in claret and blue.
“He’s obviously had people in front of him who have done really well in the position so he’s had to be patient. Dean Smith knows him well, he’s given him his opportunity.
“He’s had to wait for an injury but this is the thing that happens, he’s done that and he’s really grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The manager’s shown good faith in him so he’s obviously doing something right.”
Having become a key cog in the Villa side that has defied expectations this season, Konsa will be looking to cash in his impressive performances as England gear up for EURO 2020 this summer.
Konsa’s displays for Charlton in League One were so promising that they also earned him his first international call-up when England Under-20s manager Paul Simpson selected him for the U20 World Cup in March 2017.
Villa’s defender only featured once in the tournament, against Italy in the semi-final – because of a pesky injury interfering with his maiden tour with England at youth level – but England went on to win the 2017 tournament with Konsa a part of the squad that featured Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Fikayo Tomori.
Konsa even enjoyed a Royal reception on Thursday as Prince William welcomed them to Kensington Palace to celebrate the Young Lions’ achievement.
Soon after playing his part in England’s youth successes, Konsa would move across London to pursue his Premier League dream in the west end. He played 47 times under Smith at Brentford, including a 2-2 draw at Villa Park and a 1-0 win over Villa later in the 2018-19 season.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Villa’s exciting centre-back who in the space of two years has gone from playing at the Kassam to the Etihad.
When asked about if he’s had to pinch himself during his rapid rise, Konsa replied: “Of course. Especially when I play Man City, Aguero, stepping out on the same pitch with him, Sterling, all the top players, Kevin De Bruyne.
“When the game is done, I have to pinch myself and be like, ‘Did I really just play against some of the top players in the world?’”
After making an impressive start to life at Aston Villa, it might be Konsa playing alongside some of the league’s stars sooner rather than later.
England’s bosses have been keen to promote young talent through what promises to be a new golden generation at St George’s Park.
Konsa would be welcomed by Gareth Southgate, with a promising international pedigree after following up his U20 World Cup-winning tournament by playing in England’s victorious 2018 Toulon Tournament, as Aidy Boothroyd’s side beat Mexico in the final.
For now, Ezri Konsa’s immediate future and attention is purely on Aston Villa, using his years ahead to realise a potential labelled ‘unlimited’ by his influential head coach Dean Smith.