Aston Villa fans everywhere received a welcome boost this week when on Monday (June 30) the club announced that the promising duo of dynamic central-midfielder, Gary Gardener, and pacey England Under-19s forward, Callum Robinson, each committed to a new two-year contract with the Birmingham club.
The commitment that the talented young pairing have demonstrated by extending their stay at Villa Park in spite of interest from suitors who stood to offer guaranteed first-team football in the coming season constitutes a welcome vote of confidence for a club that is at its lowest ebb since Doug Ellis sold the club to the American billionaire, Randy Lerner, in 2006.
Gardner (22) is a better established presence in the first team dressing room than Robinson, a man three years his junior. A product of the Villa youth academy which he joined in 2005 along with his older brother Craig (now of Sunderland), Gardener made his debut for the senior squad under Alex McLeish in 2011 during a 1-3 away victory at Stamford Bridge over Chelsea.
From this point Gardener became a consistent presence in the first team match-day squad, and he fast established himself as one of the brightest youth prospects at the club. Gardener performed impressively when introduced as a substitute in order to help shut games down, and his play was widely seen to be marked out by a maturity that preceded his years. Gardener’s playing style is characterized by a short, accurate passing game in possession as well as by powerful, energetic running in defence and in support of attacks.
Gardener’s impressive performances both at first team and at youth-level for Villa earned him call-ups to represent England at every age level as far as the Under-21 side for which he has scored twice in five appearances. Gardener earned his debut first team start in a 2-3 away victory at Wolves in the Premier League at the end of January, 2012. The severe illness that befell the then captain, Stiliyan Petrov, and the shortage in central-midfield that this created meant that Gardener became a consistent presence in the starting side until the end of the 2011/12 season.
In August 2012, however, Gardener’s impressive progress was halted when he sustained a severe Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury – the second of his young career – that ruled him out for eight months. After lengthy rehabilitation, Gardner returned to the Villa first team squad as an unused substitute against Chelsea on 11 May 2013 and he made his playing comeback on the final day of the 2012/13 season against Wigan. On 12 February 2014, Gardner joined Championship side Sheffield Wednesday on an emergency loan that lasted until March as he continued his recovery to full fitness.
The fact that the club have stuck so loyally by Gardner through these injury travails attests not only to the extent of his talents but also to the close institutional affiliation that the youngster has established with the Villa coaching staff and fans alike during his almost nine years at the club. This is a commitment and faith that Gardener says that he is determined to repay after having agreed this new deal; the club’s fans will hope that Gardener’s body allows him to consistently demonstrate his undoubted talent at Villa Park next season.
Callum Robinson, too, is a product of the Villa youth academy and his retention, like that of Gardner, is a reflection of the emphasis that the Lerner administration has placed on the promotion of youth talent in recent seasons as a means of cutting down on transfer expenditure. This policy revision followed the losses accrued during the opening seasons of Lerner’s tenure at the club where Martin O’Neill spent heavily in order to consistently compete for Champions League qualification. The now Republic of Ireland manager would resign from Villa Park over a lack of investment in the first-team squad in 2010.
Robinson possesses electric pace and a good eye for goal. His style of play has seen parallels drawn between him and the Arsenal and England forward, Theo Walcott. Again like Walcott, Robinson’s preferred role is to be deployed through the middle; however, his speed, agility, and relatively slight frame means that coaches are often tempted to play him in a wider attacking position.
One suspects that any first-team action that Robinson does see in the coming months will be wide of a central attacker as he is yet to develop the physical presence required to play up-front alone at Premier League level. Robinson has been capped at every level for England up to the Under 19s squad for whom he has netted on three occasions in five appearances. The nineteen-year-old made his first-team debut for Villa last season in a 0-4 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup.