Ashley Young will become the oldest outfield player to play in the Premier League for Aston Villa next season since Robert Pires in 2011, yet the 35-year-old believes he is still at the peak of his powers.
Returning to Villa Park having won the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League and most recently the Serie A in the 10 years he spent away from the club, Young wants to bring the good times back to B6.
After joining Villa in a deal worth up to £10m from Watford in January 2007, Young played an instrumental part in helping the club secure three consecutive sixth placed finishes under Martin O’Neill.
Young’s former teammate during the days of Champions League chases from 2007-2010, Curtis Davies exclusively told BirminghamLive that the club’s capture of Young spells good business.
“He’s a brilliant signing for Villa, for his winning mentality and his experience, there’s plenty that he can bring,” Davies said.
“We played in a team that finished in the top six all the time, three years in a row and that’s the mentality you need, getting over the line in certain games and finishing in the top six is the sort of stuff that can rub off for sure.
“For long periods of the season last year Villa looked like they were good for a European finish and it didn’t look like they were going to let it up until Jack got his injury and things turned.
“I think from that side of things, if Ash can help the club make that next step and jump into Europe, his experience could be vital to the team.”
Davies had already played alongside Young with England’s Under-21s before joining a Villa dressing room in the summer of 2007 which the then 21-year-old winger was already a part of.
While Young would go on to become O’Neill’s vice-captain and later appointed club captain at Manchester United in 2018, Davies remembers a self-driven, hard-working young player at Bodymoor Heath.
“He was a very confident player, I guess, a bit cocky too, but in the right way, because you know, he believed in his ability. He had a huge responsibility within the team and ultimately you knew he was our best player a lot of the time.
“It was one of those things where Ashley went to a big club as a young player and to be around young and upcoming English players, but also to work with Martin O’Neill who basically just gave him the license to do what he wanted on the pitch,” Davies added.
“The player I remember was the flashy winger that had that moment where basically when the chips were down, just give the ball to Ash. He was that good, he just made things happen.
“When we beat Everton 3-2 after Lescott scored late on, that was the epitome of Ash, rolling up his sleeves and winning the game for us. Aston Villa was the right place for him at the right time and he always delivered the goods weekend in, weekend out.
“He was a fantastic player and for him to go back to Villa, it’s nostalgic and don’t get me wrong it’s a guy you’re getting 10 years later so I’m interested to see his role at the club.”
It was Louis van Gaal who first regularly employed Young as a wing-back after implementing his famed 3-5-2 system at Man United during the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2014. While Young still regarded himself as a winger back then, he’s rarely started in an advanced attacking role since.
Davies believes that Young’s adaptation from a tricky winger to a solid full-back deserves more recognition.
“Since he moved on, he might have learned a different side to his game and I guess he’s put more importance on the other side of the game, like tracking back and helping your teammates, being willing to play different positions,” Davies said.
“I think it’s more testament to him and his character, because if you said to me the Ash that I played with 10 years ago that he’d become a right-back or a left-back, I would’ve laughed you out of the room!
“He was that confident in his own ability, I just presumed that if he wasn’t going to be a winger at United that he was going to go somewhere else, but credit to him, he wanted to stay as a United player and ended up in the England squad for the World Cup.
“Then he gets a move to Inter Milan and goes and wins a title with Inter for the first time in 12 years or something like that and he was playing as a wing-back and for that, you’ve got to give him so much credit.”
Young seamlessly fitted into Conte’s demanding wing-back system at Inter by operating from either flank having adopted a defensive role in his time in Manchester and when playing as England’s left wing-back at the World Cup.
Pace has for some time no longer been a significant strength for Young, but his effectiveness wasn’t undermined in Italy last season. He also added further experience to the left side of Inter’s defence, where he often played in front of Alessandro Bastoni, Inter’s young central defender, or where he could feature at full-back if pressing the ball in a 4-4-2 shape.
Young became the third player to leave Man United to join Conte at Inter when he followed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in moving directly from Old Trafford to the San Siro in a move that would prolong Young’s stay at the highest level.
“I’ve spoken about James Milner that before as the most professional player I have ever played with, he’s in the gym, he’s doing the extra work on the pitch, any extra free kicks he’s doing this, he’s doing that,” Davies said.
“Ash isn’t that kind of guy, but his professionalism in terms of when it comes to training, he always trains at 100 percent. He knows his body very well too, if he wants to do extras, he’ll do extras, if he doesn’t need to, he won’t.
“It doesn’t mean he’s not a good pro because he’s not doing it because ultimately that’s what has allowed him to consistently play at the highest level but also to the individual level that he has played too has never really dipped because if joining Inter Milan is his step down from Man United, then that’s not a bad step down is it.
“I just can’t believe how good he was in terms of not just the marauding modern day full-back, but his defensive work too, but to be fair I do remember back in the day, he would be very hard to beat because he was so mobile and quick.”
Young is now determined to play a crucial role in Villa’s pursuit of European football a decade after leaving the club and admitted, ‘I want to come here and play’, after putting pen to paper on an initial one-year deal at Villa Park.
Following Villa’s record signing of Emiliano Buendia from Norwich City earlier this month, Young is the second player through the door at Villa this summer after he became only the third Englishman to win Italy’s top-flight league title in history last season.
Davies was a part of a Villa side who qualified for European football in three successive league campaigns and despite disappointing visits to Moscow and Vienna, twice, under O’Neill, the club found a consistency of league performance to build on season after season.
Villa’s former centre-back believes that a push for the top six would have been too big of a step too soon and that Dean Smith is the right man to lead an assault on the Premier League’s higher reaches.
“The first season back in the Premier League was really tough staying up by the skin of their teeth,” Davies said.
“I also think it was a blessing in disguise that last year they didn’t continue that run into Europe because it allows them to start building again this season.
“So, if they were able to do it this year, you know they’d be in a much better place. You know that they will recruit well again this summer and with fans back in Villa Park too it gives their home games that extra edge for when teams come to play them.
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“Villa are a club that are building in the right direction and at the right pace, I think if they were able to finish in the top six or seven next year it would definitely be a lot more beneficial than if they had done it last year because I think it would have been a step taken too quick maybe.
“I’m liking what Deano is doing, with JT there as well too, Konsa, Mings, Grealish, Watkins, there’s players doing really well throughout the team so I think it’s really good that they are trying to play great football with the right ideas and with young, English players as well.”
As Young settles into familiar surroundings ahead of the new Premier League season with Villa, Davies isn’t ruling out his former teammate picking up a coaching role when the day comes to hang up his boots.
“Personally, I don’t know (about a coaching role), and I couldn’t imagine it, but then again, I couldn’t have imagined him playing as a full-back!”