Baker exclusive - I could have been a rugby player
Nathan Baker hails from a part of the country that is often associated with rugby rather than football.
But the rough and tumble of the oval ball game has aided the Worcester-born defender in his pursuit of Barclays Premier League stardom.
Baker had to deal with some hard knocks after making his Villa debut under Gerard Houllier in January 2011.
But the academy graduate has come a long way since grabbing the attention of club scouts as a nine-year-old.
"I used to play rugby at school and I loved it," says Baker. "I played as a wing and as a centre. I suppose it set me up nicely to be a strong centre-half and get more tackles in!
"But when I got scouted here it was an opportunity to go further with football and that was my dream really.
"I can remember getting spotted because it was the day that I got my first dog with my parents!
"We had a tournament over at a school next to me.
"I was spotted by a scout who approached my parents and asked me to come up to Villa training. It all went from there."
While his introduction to Villa more than a decade ago coincided with the arrival of four-legged friend Otto in the Baker household, the 21-year-old's early top-flight career didn't quite set tails wagging in the manner that he had hoped.
He earned his first team chance after starring in title-winning reserve and youth sides, as well as impressing on loan at Lincoln City.
However, the highs of his Villa breakthrough were quickly tempered by the lows of a red card and injury frustration.
A clumsy challenge on Blackburn's Junior Hoilett in an FA Cup tie brought his second senior appearance to an abrupt end.
His return to action in the league against the same opposition finished prematurely, too, following a collision with goalkeeper Paul Robinson.
Two years on from those setbacks, though, Baker has been enjoying his most productive spell, even if he is currently sidelined temporarily with a hamstring problem.
He flourished in the new 3-5-2 system - particularly in the successes against Norwich in the Capital One Cup and Liverpool in the Premier League.
The England U21 international also received an early-season boost from Paul Lambert, who selected him for his first game as Villa boss on the opening day at West Ham.
"It was definitely a bit of a coming-of-age week for us reaching a cup semi-final and then beating Liverpool," says Baker.
"Being selected on the opening day was also big. It gave me confidence to play in his first game. It means he noticed me in training and wanted to give me a go, so it all paid off.
"I've been part of the first team squad and playing a lot lately so hopefully I can stay part of it and keep going."
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