By Brian Doogan
Matt Lowton's objectives were clear and simple when he arrived from League One Sheffield United.
"I set my stall out to work as hard as I could in the summer and to get into the team as soon as I could," recalls the 23-year defender who has played every minute of every Premier League game for Villa this season. "To be picked for the first game [at West Ham] was unbelievable but once I was there I set my stall out again to stay in the team and to continue to work hard.
"Growing up, I wasn't always blessed with a lot of talent but I was never afraid to work hard and put the effort in. You saw people going home straight away when you're working hard and, even though they were better footballers than you, they're not doing it now. I've always had it in my mind that if you work hard you'll get repaid for it. I've been lucky enough to avoid injuries and stuff like that as well."
Humility rooted deep in his Chesterfield upbringing and a real sense of earnest purpose are defining features of family man Lowton's determined, plain-speaking, appealing nature. The first thought that crossed his mind when he scored and celebrated with his team-mates a genuine contender for goal of the season on Saturday against Stoke was indicative of an attitude that is steeped in the ethics of 'team'.
"I was thinking to myself, 'We need to hold on and win the game.' That was the only thought in my head," he reflects. "A goal like that and the timing and significance of it, it's nice when the points are so crucial. But the main thing is the three points and, as I keep saying, that the team takes the momentum and the confidence into the next game."
Inevitably, manager Paul Lambert will take Lowton into the next game, too. Hungry and ambitious, he embodies a commitment to the cause which has marked him down as one of the most consistent and reliable performers in a team which, over time, is finding its feet.
"The manager has a really good way of communicating with the players and getting his message across," Lowton reveals.
"He'll take you aside and he won't just say, 'You're doing it wrong', he'll say, 'This is how you do it right'. We watch videos and I like to think that it's helped me, being told where we went wrong and where we did things right and how to improve specific areas of your game.
"I switched off in a game at the start of the season and the gaffer showed me and said, 'You're in a good position here,' but then I switched off. It wasn't even a major thing but he caught it, pointed it out and that's how you learn as a player and improve your game. He's been very good with me and all of the players really in terms of instilling confidence and belief.
"The goal I scored against Swansea - it was my weaker foot! The ball got headed out and I just concentrated on my first touch. When it sat up I thought, 'Why not?' Same against Stoke, the ball was there to be struck and, thankfully, I just caught it right. That's partly down to the gaffer as well, the confidence that he's put into me since I've come here - don't be afraid to try things. Luckily, it flew in.
"This season has been a bit of a rollercoaster for everybody, we know that. There's been a new manager who has come in and a lot of new players as well but, like I say, we've all stuck together and morale has been high all season. That's been a constant and so has the support of the fans, which is just phenomenal. The passion in the away end on Saturday - it was electric and, home and away, the fans have been fantastic, 100 per cent behind the team and what the manager and the club are trying to do and achieve.
"The performance levels have been consistent over the past several months and the results are coming now as well. Like you say, the last few results have been fantastic for us. They've been massive games and we knew we had to beat the teams in and around us. We know we have a job to do still but we can take great confidence from the way we've been performing. We just need to keep doing it now over the remainder of the season. We're growing and coming together as a team, no question, so we believe we can."
In his formative years, Steven Gerrard was one of Lowton's idols and he is humbled now to be mentioned in the same breath as the Liverpool captain, having featured this season - like Gerrard and Everton and England defender Leighton Baines - in every passage of Premier League play for his team.
"It's crazy for me to think that I'm in the same sentence as Steven Gerrard," he says, smiling sheepishly. "He's been one of my idols growing up, watching him in Champions League finals and playing for England, so to be mentioned in the same breath as him is remarkable. But he's been doing it for years now and that's the challenge for me. That's what I need to do, not just one season but doing it for 10 or 12 like he has. Like I say, I've watched him for years and hopefully I can keep learning from him."
Lowton credits his girlfriend, Abi, and children Alexa and Harry for helping him to adjust to life in the Premier League - and also a loan spell at Hungarian club Ferencvaros [then a sister club to Sheffield United] when he was 18.
"I went abroad for 10 months and I had to grow up fast living on my own out there straight away," he relates. "For the first time in my life I had to do everything for myself, things like washing - I even dabbled in a bit of ironing! I didn't learn much Hungarian though - it's the hardest language in the world! I tried, I picked up a few words here and there like you do but it's a really hard language to learn. But it was great, the environment, a different culture ... the fans of Ferencvaros, they were a crazy set of fans! We had one game called off because we were losing 3-1 and the fans set the stand on fire! Unbelievable!
"But it's all a part of the learning experience. Having kids, too, has helped me grow up and Abi helps me an awful lot as well. And having a lot of lads in and around my own sort of age in the team, that's been great with settling in. It's been easier to get to know people as the lads are fantastic and we all have a good laugh away from it all."
On the pitch, however, it is all business and the challenges of this season have been helped a great deal by the contribution of Christian Benteke who has scored 15 Premier League goals and 19 in all competitions.
"He's fantastic. On his day he's unplayable," Lowton emphasises. "You've seen the different types of goals that he scores, the one at West Brom where they stood off him, then they try to tackle him when he runs at them and he's smashed it in the top corner. Then there's the one at Liverpool where they've done the opposite and tried to get the ball off him and he's beaten them and put the ball in the back of the net. Like I say, on his day he's unplayable and he's great to have in the team."
As it is to have Matt Lowton - just ask the man who has picked him in every Premier League game.
"Like I said at the weekend, I don't think you will see a better goal in Europe let alone anywhere else than Matt Lowton's," says Paul Lambert. "The technique, chest control and volley were just outstanding. He has played every minute of every game in the league and there's a reason for that - he has been outstanding."
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