After Aston Villa won spectacularly and deservedly at Anfield against Liverpool at the start of December, there was a wave of praise for Paul Lambert. Here was a manager, they said, that had accepted to develop a team using largely academy products augmented by a couple of lower league signings and who was making a success of it.
A couple of weeks later, there wasn't even a faint echo of those compliments. Villa had been humiliated against Chelsea (8-0) before losing heavily to Tottenham (4-0) and then against Wigan (3-0).* The average age of the players put out by Lambert in those games was of 23 years and by the end of each game they walked off the pitch like traumatised tragedy survivors being led away from the scene of their accident.
The truth is that mistakes linger longer in the minds of young players. Whilst Alan Hansen was ridiculed for his statement that "you don't win anything with kids" (a phrase that, ironically enough, he uttered after Aston Villa had beaten Manchester United), he was essentially right. No matter how much talent they might possess, young players simply do not have the experience to deal with matters when things start going against them. Their character has not developed enough to handle set-backs - particularly in-game - and they do not have the maturity to analyse the situation and decide what should be done. Instead they panic and start making even more mistakes.
Aston Villa have one of the finest academies in England, one that doesn't receive anything near the level of appreciation that it deserves. And its academy is delivering talented players to the first team. Despite the negative results it is clear that the likes of Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton are very good prospects. Yet their young players should not be playing as many games as they are at the moment; they should be shielded.
Villa are living proof that you need experienced players within the team who can lead and guide those around them. By not doing this they risk irretrievably losing a generation of players before these can get to a position to fulfill their talent.
For guidance, clubs should look at Manchester United. There are few clubs in Europe, let alone England, who have managed to successfully introduce young players in the first team - and remain competitive at the highest level - as well as they have.
This they can do because they can pick when to introduce these players, putting them into a framework that works well and with players who know what they should be doing. And if there aren't opportunities to give them any regular football at that point in time, they make sure that they get good first team experience on a regular basis and at a high level on loan elsewhere.
Even in that defeat to Villa way back in 1995 that led to Hansen making his comment, United played the youngsters Gary Neville, Lee Sharpe, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville alongside Paul Parker Dennis Irwin, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane and Brian McClair. There was enough experience in that team to handle that adverse result, which is why they ended the season with a double in their hands.
* Villa drew the following game 2-2 at Swansea but were lucky that result was partially due to Swansea's inability to capitalise on a number of clear chances early on.
This piece was originally published in Issue 1 of Blueprint for Football's free bi-weekly e-zine that was sent out on the 5th of January. For exclusive content, snippets of future articles and links to the best football articles around, subscribe here.