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Feature: Young lions prepare to step into the future with Europe's elite

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Feature: Young lions prepare to step into the future with Europe's elite

By Dan Harrison

It's a fixture any young professional around Europe would relish.

Ajax away. The birthplace of Total Football. The school of Cruyff, Van Basten, Bergkamp and many more illustrious names.

That is what awaits Villa's young guns this evening.

Both clubs' histories are enriched by champagne moments from great European nights.

Now they are set to get a glimpse into the future.

'Step in to the future of football' is the slogan adopted by founders of the NextGen Series - a 16-team Champions League-style competition bringing together the cream of youth football from across Europe.

It is appropriate because the tournament offers a unique platform for fledgling stars to hone their skills, aimed at bridging the gap between domestic youth football and the pressures of top-flight action.

Villa - along with Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Celtic - are Britain's representatives and will come up against Ajax, Fenerbahce and Rosenborg in the group stages.

While the Dutch giants, not to mention the likes of Barcelona, are inevitable participants for a tournament of this stature, NextGen's creator, the former Watford academy manager Mark Warburton explains why Villa also tick the required boxes when it comes to dining at the top table of youth football in Europe.

"It was the all round package," said Warburton. "You can go to Bodymoor Heath and see you have got world class facilities there.

"I know [Villa's academy director] Bryan Jones very well and have seen the excellent work that has been done in the academy.

"You can also look at the FA Youth Cup over the past couple of seasons and see the quality teams that Villa have put out there.

"Even back when I was a young player for Leicester in the 1980s, Villa always brought through young players."

There is no doubt tonight's clash against the Dutch giants at De Toekomst is among the most anticipated of the opening round of fixtures.

But for the young Villa side, led by reserve team manager Kevin MacDonald, it is not just about facing one of the continent's superpowers.

"It's not just about the football," Warburton added. "It's the travel, the preparation, the chance to see other training grounds and play against different styles and other extremely gifted technical players.

"I was travelling around academies throughout Europe during my time as academy manager at Watford and I was also involved with a website doing filming at academies.

"The same question arose from Watford to Inter Milan to Sporting Lisbon - where do players go to make the jump from elite youth football?

"These players get to play in tournaments but they might only be over the course of a week or a weekend.

"So it was a case of how could we offer them a consistent challenge?

"If these young Villa players know they are going to face quality opposition around Europe every couple of weeks it enthuses them, it motivates them and it provides them with a real education."

Warburton is delighted with the manner in which clubs have embraced the NextGen Series - and he is hopeful it will become a competition where stars are born.

"The clubs have embraced it beyond all belief," he added. "The first team managers can look at these games and see young professionals playing against the best in Europe.

"Villa's first game with Ajax will be a tremendous fixture.

"It would be great if some of these young players could play in this tournament then go on to play in the first team."

Click here for more information on the NextGen Series.

Villa's NextGen fixtures

Wed Aug 17 - Ajax v Villa [De Toekomst, 6.30pm local time]
Wed Sep 28 - Villa v Fenerbahce [Villa Park, 7pm]
Wed Oct 26 - Fenerbahce v Villa [Venue/time, TBC]
Wed Nov 2 - Villa v Rosenborg [Villa Park, 7pm]
Wed Nov 9 - Rosenborg v Villa [Venue/time, TBC]
Tue Nov 22 - Villa v Ajax [Villa Park, 7pm]

Click here to get hold of the fantastic 4-for-£50 family deal for what should be Charles N'Zogbia's home debut against Blackburn.

By @AVFCOfficial 17th August 2011
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