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Jun 22, 2013

Lambert banks on Villa finishing school

From day one, Paul Lambert has staked his Aston Villa future on buying talent that is young and hungry. We can now state without fear of contradiction that he is buying young, hungry and early.

A man who impressed all with his calm adherence to the claim that his side would emerge safe from their 2012-13 survival battle barely seems to have let up since the season ended with them three places and five points above the water line.

We are left to hazard a guess at the extent of the 'undisclosed' fees but, without great fanfare, Lambert has already made five summer captures as well as tempting Nathan Baker, unused midfielder Daniel Johnson and, more importantly, Andreas Weimann to sign new contracts.

So much for June being largely a month off for managers in the years between World Cup and European Championship finals.

When Sevilla left-back Antonio Luna checked in at Villa Park this week on a three-year contract, he underpinned the policy Lambert set out as soon as he succeeded his fellow Glaswegian Alex McLeish a year ago this month. Luna is 22.

Bulgarian winger Aleksandar Tonev (23) set the ball rolling for this summer's squad strengthening by moving to the West Midlands in the first week of the month. Just a few days later came 20-year-old Dane Jores Okore and Netherlands Under-21 midfielder Leandro Bacuna, while Danish striker Nicklas Helenius, 22, completed his move on another three-year contract this week.

The identity of the new boys – they are barely men, after all – backs up Lambert's declaration in the mid-May week when Villa's top-flight safety was secured that there would be no likelihood of big name summer signings.

"Those days have gone," he said back then. "We have stripped it right back. We want players who are hungry. I look at players with character, not those who just want money." The return so far would appear to be very favourable. At the end of last season, his players looked positively ravenous in their appetite to be performing on the top-flight stage again in the coming months.

In Lambert's first pre-season, the likes of Ashley Westwood, Matt Lowton and Christian Benteke were drafted in at considerable cost to shore up a squad who had flirted once or twice with the drop under different managers. Benteke's form was nothing short of spectacular but that of Westwood in midfield and Lowton as a near ever-present at full-back were eye-catching as well.

Although it's wrong to always assume that a year older and wiser also means a year better – and behind everything is the worry about whether Benteke will stay – there's reassurance here for Villa fans.

Lambert, admittedly from the much lower starting point of League One football, accomplished the same sort of overhaul at Norwich, where an influx of young-and-hungrys was so successful that the good folk of Norfolk are now looking forward to a third successive Premier League campaign. He's at odds with one or two individuals at Carrow Road but he knows he can look them squarely in the eye. His legacy is sound.

Here, clearly, is a man on a specific course and he's not for turning. And, while we're at it, Baker is 22, Weimann 21 and Johnson 20. This is becoming a very impressive finishing school for Premier League wannabees and rookies.

While all this is happening, higher-profile figures are heading towards the exit door. Richard Dunne's release has been confirmed, Shay Given has spoken of a desire to move on in search of regular first-team football and it will be a surprise if Darren Bent and Stephen Ireland don't join him in the departure lounge. That's another huge saving on wages that will curry further favour with Messrs Lerner and Faulkner, Villa's owner and chief executive.

Lambert isn't 'winning things with kids', if we may borrow a phrase coined by one comfy-on-the-sofa pundit in his days of more vigorous analysis, because clubs the size of Villa sadly don't win league titles any more. But he is pinning the club's future on them and the outlook is brightening.

When Alan Hansen's colleague Robbie Savage then criticised Villa's decision to stick with youth by signing only Yacouba Cylla and the on-loan Simon Dawkins when relegation was very much a threat at the end of the January window, his wasn't a lone view. "How about buying someone for the here and now, rather than for the future?" was the gist of his damning assessment.

Lambert has so far confounded the critics and cynics – and there have been plenty of those – so he deserves the faith of Villa supporters while his bold gamble moves into its second year. He has been busy in the market while the vast majority of others have been quiet. Who knows, he may even be approaching that managerial utopia of having all his summer buying completed before his squad report for pre-season training.

Whatever plans he may still have for the close season, he has earned the right for respect from his peers, many of whom will have been stirring on their Mediterranean or Floridian sun-loungers and raising an eyebrow at the extent of his work.

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