Sunderland face Aston Villa Under-21s tonight in their first match of the 2020/21 EFL Trophy at the Stadium of Light. Phil Parkinson’s men will also face Carlisle and League One rivals Fleetwood as part of their Group A fixtures.
The club will be seeking to repeat their success of the 2018/19 season under Jack Ross, where they, of course, narrowly lost the final to Portsmouth on penalties.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Aston Villa fan and managing editor of Under A Gaslit Lamp, Regan Foy, to learn all about Villa’s under-21 team, and what Sunderland can expect to face during the match.
MC: Aston Villa finished bottom of their EFL Trophy group last season, losing both games against Salford and Tranmere. What are your aspirations for the competition this season?
RF: It was a bit of an odd group last season, with Bury initially in there before they were kicked out of the football league. Our youth system is consistently evolving, and we’re seeing a number of players from a few years ago who were touted to be potential senior squad members, not making the cut and being released or loaned out to non-league. Whilst this is disappointing, it’s also allowing us to push younger talents into an older age group and give them experience of a higher level of football than they’re used to.
We haven’t been given the easiest group by any means, but I’d expect our lads to hopefully finish second in the group. But realistically, it depends on what the squad is looking like come the start of the season, and whether some players are called up to the senior side or remain in the under-21s.
MC: American youth international Indiana Vassilev broke into the Aston Villa first-team last season making four Premier League appearances. Do you think he is likely to the main threat to Sunderland?
RF: Indiana, or Indy, is a youngster that we’ve been expecting to break through for a season or so, and he did last year thanks to a number of senior squad, and his prolific form for the under-21s. When he’s made his appearances in the Premier League they’ve been somewhat fleeting and I don’t feel like we’ve been able to see too much of him during his time.
Whether he’ll be the main threat or not remains to be seen, but I can tell you that he’s an energetic bundle that will break his back to press the opposition defence. I think we may have bigger threats in our arsenal, but whether you’ll face him or not depends on whether he’s now considered a senior squad player by Dean Smith.
MC: Villa signed England Under-17s striker Louie Barry from Barcelona in January for just under £1m. How highly is he thought of at the club and can we expect to see him?
RF: He’s thought of very highly by fans especially, and he almost signalled the rebuild of our academy when we signed him last January. I know our academy manager, Mark Harrison and our head coach Dean Smith both rate him fairly highly, too.
I’m not sure whether you’ll see him or not. He played in the under-21s towards the end of last season, and while we’ve seen a lot of our academy prospects training with the first team during pre-season, there has been no sign of Barry. Whether he’s quarantining after a holiday or something similar remains to be seen. If he is involved, I expect him to have a good showing, and it would be great for us to actually see him play ‘live’.
MC: Excluding Vassilev and Barry, who are the Aston Villa players you believe can cause Sunderland problems during the match?
RF: I think there’s a handful that might cause you issues. The Ramsey brothers, Aaron and Jacob, have both been training with our senior squad and both are touted to be future senior squad members. They’re both England youth internationals and will play in the midfield, although Jacob will likely be the one to cause the problems for your defenders.
We also have Republic of Ireland youth international Tyreik Wright who was in great goalscoring form before the pandemic, and has carried that into our under-21 pre-season games. Defence wise, centre-back Mungo Bridge and right-back Kaine Kesler have also been playing in our senior pre-season friendlies and will likely be the main two to stop your forwards.
A wildcard shout may be Carney Chukmueweka, who has been labelled as ‘the best 16-year old in the country’ [by Villa chief executive Christian Purslow]. If he plays, he may cause an issue or two. We had to fight off interest from Chelsea and Manchester City to sign him to a new contract this summer.
MC: There is an ongoing debate on whether under-21 sides should be part of the EFL Trophy or not. Do you think the inclusion of elite academy sides is a positive or a negative?
RF: This is always going to be a double-sided debate. For us as a Premier League side, it allows our youngsters to get necessary game time against senior players, which aids in their development.
It also gives them the opportunity to play in large stadiums, and generally in front of larger crowds (before COVID). It’s definitely a positive for us and other ‘elite’ sides. But for those in the lower leagues it is bound to be an annoying hurdle on the way to some potential silverware.
MC: Sunderland will be the favourites to win the match. What’s your prediction for the game?
RF: I’d like to say that we’ll run you close, but even then I don’t think it’s going to be that even. My head says a 2-0 Sunderland win, while my heart says that it’ll be tighter and be a 3-2 win for Sunderland. At least you’re winning in both my head and my heart!