Aston Villa’s journey to the Champions League began with £28m EFL raid: View | OneFootball

Aston Villa’s journey to the Champions League began with £28m EFL raid: View | OneFootball

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·18 May 2024

Aston Villa’s journey to the Champions League began with £28m EFL raid: View

Article image:Aston Villa’s journey to the Champions League began with £28m EFL raid: View

Aston Villa’s rise from the Championship to the Champions League has been a pay-off for years of meticulous planning, shrewd investment, and an astute transfer policy.

So, while Unai Emery must take the bulk of the credit for Villa’s impressive campaign, having guided his side to a fourth-place finish in just his first full season at the club, the foundations for success had long been set ahead of his arrival.

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One standout piece of business before the Emery era has been crucial in the club’s pursuit of European football this term.

Ollie Watkins joined Aston Villa from Brentford in 2020 for a then club-record fee of £28 million. Fresh off the back of a 26-goal season for the Bees, the striker re-united with former manager Dean Smith after impressing in the Championship.

Fast-forward four years and the 28-year-old attacker has enjoyed a stellar season in the top flight. Watkins is on course to finish this campaign as the club’s top scorer, and, with thirteen assists to his name, Villa’s star man is likely to end up being the division's most prolific assister.

With the metrics to back up his impressive performances, barring incident, Watkins will be on the plane to Germany as part of England’s Euro 2024 squad this June.

Villa appeared to have splashed the cash when bringing in Watkins from Brentford, but now the £28 million fee looks like a bargain buy. The club has reaped the rewards for trusting young, talented players from the EFL, and this season their faith has been repaid.

Watkins purchase set the ball rolling for Villa

Article image:Aston Villa’s journey to the Champions League began with £28m EFL raid: View

The Watkins transfer represented a significant gamble for Aston Villa at the time. Despite the striker's impressive Championship campaign during the 19/20 season, he was unproven at the Premier League level.

Back then, the £28 million fee was the highest ever paid for a Championship player. Although the forward possessed the goalscoring ability, technical attributes and athleticism needed to be effective at the highest level, the outlay carried a significant risk.

That same window, Villa signed defender Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest for £16 million. The Watkins signing reinforced the club’s transfer policy: purchasing young talents adjusted to the English game.

While Cash has, at times, been affected by injury. The defender’s versatility has made him a regular starter under Emery. In scouring the Championship, Villa have been able to pick up and integrate ready-made players at a lower cost without paying the inflated fees often associated with footballers plying their trade in the top domestic leagues on the continent.

Watkins’ achievement has helped to shine a light on a pathway to European football for EFL players. Morgan Rodgers, who signed from Middlesbrough in February, will be hoping to follow in the strikers’ footsteps and solidify his position in Emery’s starting side.

Clubs on the cusp of Europe should look to EFL for cost-effective additions

Article image:Aston Villa’s journey to the Champions League began with £28m EFL raid: View

The gruelling nature of the Premier League adds to the entertainment. The English top-flight is widely regarded as the best division in the world due to the high level of quality all teams have at their disposal.

That said, there is still a significant gulf in depth between the division’s top sides and their mid-table or lower counterparts.

Often, as January rolls around, clubs will look to the Championship for rising stars to salvage their season, add squad depth, or offer rotational options to fill in for key players ruled out through injury.

Now that Villa has proven a proactive approach to second-tier signings can be effective, more clubs should consider the EFL’s top crop of talent and look to build for the future by giving proven players a leg up.

In the past, teams on the cusp of European football have been fallible when opting to bring in high-profile players from overseas for large sums of money. These arrivals can take time to acclimatise to the speed and intensity of the league; they may be useful in the long run as a signing for a project but might not be effective in providing instant returns.

Hopefully, the blueprint for success championed by Villa, Emery, and the club's previous managers will push Premier League teams to take note of the domestic talent pool and trust in the strength of the EFL when searching for the next Ollie Watkins.

After all, that is a signing that came after Villa's fortunate escape from relegation. There have been bumps in the road since then, but the club have established themselves and kicked on impressively, spearheaded by a £28m EFL talent that's dragged them into the heights of the Champions League.

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