Aston Villa are plotting their ascent to the top of the English football ladder with shrewd recruitment and player development crucial to an ambitious five-year plan.
Overhauls staged in recruitment and player identification departments have shone a light on Villa’s transfer dealings following the recent appointments of Sporting Director Johan Lange and talent spotter Rob Mackenzie.
While their tenures are still firmly in their infancy, Villa’s new-look recruitment team will be afforded time to mould the desirable culture Dean Smith and Christian Purslow are working around the clock to install.
Identifying a calibre of player willing to work and improve, play for the shirt and above all fit the club’s ethos is no easy task, but in the case of Ezri Konsa, Villa have a gem on their hands.
After a year at the club, Konsa’s development serves as proof that Bodymoor Heath can nurture a talent once labelled ‘the best young centre-back in the country’. Still only 22 years of age, Konsa already racked up 133 club appearances before joining Villa last summer.
His three-year spell in the EFL with firstly Charlton, then 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 team-mates 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 allowed Villa head coach Smith a second look at the player he’d bought from Charlton for a mere £2.5m when at the Brentford helm. Villa’s boss knew from the start he 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 the top flight 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, Konsa would only miss three of Villa’s 26 remaining league fixtures.
An eye-catching Project Restart
Smith’s side were required to pull off a Great Escape to avoid relegation come July after the Premier League’s Coronavirus suspension and Konsa stepped up and became a crucial part in Villa’s survival bid.
The defender believes the experience has only made them stronger.
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.”
Konsa was a key target for Smith who was eager to trigger the former England Under-21centre-back’s £12m release clause last summer.
He had to wait to repay his gaffer’s trust and during Project Restart Konsa came into his own when Smith needed his players to step up more than ever.
Alongside Mings, the pair formed an effective defensive base.
“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 team-mates, 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’s 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’s ‘You 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 the club plots an assault on the upper echelons of 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 vital, and in doing so beating other clubs to the signature of some European stars.
Konsa was reportedly wanted by 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 – and then the backing we got at Tottenham was superb, too. It’s really fantastic to be here,” he added.
Life at Bodymoor Heath
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 an all too 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.”
Konsa, meanwhile, has spoken of assistant head coach Terry’s influence, adding how the Chelsea legend was among his idols growing up.
He told talkSPORT: “Watching Rio Ferdinand play for Man United and England, his leadership on the pitch, how he played, his confidence, him and John Terry, they were the ones I was looking 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.”
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.”
Where it all began for Konsa
Konsa started out at Senrab F.C. as a youngster, a club renowned for handing the first taste of football to many England internationals, including the likes of Terry, Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell and Ledley King, and even former Villans Ugo Ehiogu and Jlloyd Samuel.
Senrab aims to provide an opportunity for children and young people, from varying backgrounds, to participate in grassroots football and enhance their health and well-being through organised sport.
Aside from developing young talent, providing a safer environment for youngsters in East London is a major responsibility of the organisation. In 2014 Senrab were shortlisted for the Daily Mirror Pride of Sport Awards in the Local Team of the Year Category.
Konsa became one of the many Senrab graduates to make it in a professional academy and at the age of 11, he signed for Charlton 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 place 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.
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 during three successive managerial changes.
While a handful of clubs circled around 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-halves in the Premier League. He will be a Premier League centre-back, so he needs to believe in himself.”
International hopes and European champions
Konsa’s displays in League One were so promising that they also earned him his first international call-up when England U20s 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. England went on to win the 2017 tournament with Konsa a part of the squad featuring 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 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.
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