By Brian Doogan
For a player whose reputation for toughness is on a par with Ron Vlaar, it is disarming to encounter Yacouba Sylla's smiling face, his polite handshake and easy, humble charm.
"This is how I am," he says, laughing. "Being courteous to people and respectful costs me nothing, it's free. I am very happy here, I love being here and I am lucky - I remind myself of this every day."
Only six weeks ago the 22-year-old defensive midfield player was in the midst of his third season with Clermont Foot in French Ligue 2. When he was informed by club president Claude Michy that a bid from Aston Villa had been accepted and he would be singing for his new club on transfer deadline day, his reaction was simple: "What? Me? I couldn't believe it. Only when the plane touched down at Birmingham Airport did I realise this was actually happening. It was a shock really."
During his medical overseen by Dr Roddy MacDonald, Villa's head of sport and exercise medicine, the shock was provided by his choice of music as he underwent a routine scan. "I was asked what music I would like to listen to and I said I like rap - French rap or American rap, I like both," he recalls. "The songs I like are by artists who speak about their lives and search for what is important in life. But I was told they did not have these songs, so they gave me some earphones as I went under the scanner and I had to listen to Capital Gold instead!"
Six weeks later Sylla is able to reflect with pride on his first Premier League start against Reading and a 2-1 victory at the Madejski Stadium. Manager Paul Lambert described his performance as "outstanding" and the Frenchman remains grateful that he was entrusted with his midfield role alongside Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannan.
"I was really happy to start the game but the joy I felt I had to put aside because I needed to concentrate on my job in order to produce the best possible performance," he says. "The standard of the game was really high-level and Reading made it a difficult game for us. It is a feature of this league that everybody can beat everybody else. You must concentrate on your own game therefore, as a team and as an individual, and simply try to do your best.
"I've been here for a month and a half now and I've been welcomed and helped by everybody at the club. I understand the philosophy of the game we play here - we are a team that tries to play very well on the ball. We are also a very tight team, a team that is together. This is the central part of the philosophy. For instance, Christian [Benteke] lives near to me, so we see each other and eat together sometimes and this has been a big help for me in trying to integrate into the group. We help each other as team-mates and this is the spirit we will be able to draw on always. Christian, of course, is leading from the front and he is having a very good season but we are all in this together. As a team, we know we have goals in us and we are very positive in our thoughts."
From the age of six, whether playing football with his friends in the streets of Étampes or in his hometown team's underage sides, Sylla only ever wanted to be a footballer. He has played in different positions - on the right wing and even in a more attacking role - and it is only in the past two years that he his natural habitat has become defensive midfield. His natural athleticism is an inevitable consequence of his passion for the game and the enthusiasm with which he and his friends approached every moment with a football at their feet and time on their hands.
"Some of my friends have become teachers, some are in the building trade and some of them are still studying, but what brought us all together when we were growing up was football, our passion for it and our desire to play the game one day at a good level - this is why I feel lucky today," he emphasises via Lorna McClelland, Villa's player liaison and welfare officer who is interpreting. "It was other people who opened my eyes to the fact I had some skill and perhaps I would have a future playing football and once I became a teenager this became my goal. My obsession. I joined Bretigny from Étampes, spent four years there and had spells at AS Montferrand, Malesherbes and Caen where I was two years at their training centre before I went to Clermont Foot. This was my education in the game.
"My education in life has always been provided by my family. My father was a cabinet maker and kept a small family business and my mother works in a school canteen and is also a cleaner. They have worked hard all their lives and they always allowed me to do what I wanted to do. They made sure I had a great education and good schooling and they left me with a completely free choice about what I wanted to do in my life as I grew into a man.
"This is why I always have great respect for the people who teach me, support me and look after me in my life - this is the way I was brought up. The least I can do is recognise people's efforts in helping me with my football. It's funny but I did not really grow physically until I was 16 and when I did this helped in the development of my game, but my mind was already set a long time ago on being a professional footballer. That I have my chance to do this in the Premier League with Aston Villa is something I am grateful for every day and each day I remind myself how lucky I am. This is why I smile, because I am very happy and every day I want to do the best and be the best I possibly can."
Yacouba Sylla and Aston Villa are proud to be involved in the fundraising drive for Acorns Day, which will be held on Saturday at Villa Park in our Barclays Premier League game against QPR. Supporters can get involved with JustTextGiving and the opportunity will be open to everyone by texting AVFC12 £3 to 70070.
Snap up match tickets for our clash with QPR.