Ashley Young had dreams when he joined Watford as a 10-year-old but it is fair to say he did not envisage returning to Vicarage Road 26 years later as the only Englishman to have won the league in England and Italy. “I don’t think I would actually have believed that,” says the player who, on Saturday, will kick off his second stint at Aston Villa at the club where his exceptional journey began. But nostalgia will not grip him.
“I don’t think I’m really going to look back at achievements until I retire,” says Young. “I’m still playing, still fit and I still want to achieve things. I’ve been an ambitious person since I was a kid and that’s just grown and grown. That mentality will never leave me.” That is one of the reasons why he should prove to be a canny signing by Villa, who were quick to lure him on a free in June after he concluded a successful 18-month spell at Internazionale by winning Serie A. Embracing the Italian challenge rather than idling in luxury at Old Trafford was in keeping with Young’s character.
“I never thought the opportunity would come to play abroad but when it did I spoke to Ole [Gunnar Solskjær] and he said I wouldn’t have many chances at United so I went and spoke to [Antonio Conte], who had wanted me when he was at Chelsea. Once he said I could play week in, week out rather than be a bit-part player, it was always a go. It definitely worked out. Milan is an unbelievable city to play in and live. I wanted to try to learn the culture and the language and play as much as possible and that’s what I was able to do. Winning the league was the perfect way to top everything off. I’m just delighted that on the last day of the season we were able to celebrate with the fans outside the stadium. And now I’m delighted to be back in England at a club I know really well.”
During Young’s first incarnation as a Villa player the club finished sixth for three seasons in a row under Martin O’Neill before the then-owner, Randy Lerner, lost the will to keep funding progress. Villa fell away while Young, after moving to United in 2011, continued climbing. He won every major domestic competition and the 2017 Europa League during nearly a decade at United before moving to Italy, and his 39 England caps included the run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. Now Villa, with renewed ambition under a pair of billionaire owners, Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, hope Young will add quality and knowhow to Dean Smith’s budding team.
“I’ve been around the block,” says Young. “I was captain at Manchester United, I know what it takes. If I can help influence the younger players, then I’m willing to give advice. Of course I don’t have all the answers but so far whenever any of the younger guys have asked me anything, I’ve been able to help. But that works both ways: everyone that goes out on to the pitch has to talk. Everyone has to help everyone.”
Young is among those who believe the departure of Jack Grealish need not clip Villa’s wings, especially as this summer’s other recruits – Emi Buendía, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings – enrich an already talented squad. “You can’t take anything away from what Jack did – he was fantastic for the club,” he says. “But when players move on, you move on too. I believe the club has done great business in recruiting the players that they have. One player went out but four have come in so far. So the competition in the squad is very good.
“You have to be on your toes 24/7, in every training session and every game. That sort of competition is very healthy and I’ve had it at every club I’ve been at. There is so much potential, qualities in abundance. I’ve got a really good feeling about this season. The owners and the manager have backed the team and now it’s down to the team to go out and produce on the pitch. I think we can definitely reach Europe, which is where a club of this magnitude should be year in, year out.”
As for Young’s position, that, as ever, is an open issue. The player is happy about that, because he has never seen versatility as a curse. “I think I’ve played in every position in my career except goalkeeper,” he says. “Obviously I was brought up as a winger or a No 10 and I always wanted to stay there but if you’re asked to play wing-back or whatever, you go out and give your best. I have a good football brain and can play different positions. I went to the World Cup as a wing-back so you can’t think that being versatile hinders your chances. I’ve played at left-back in some of the pre-season friendlies with Villa and then I played as a winger in one [against Salernitana] and I scored. Wherever the manager calls on me to play, I’ll go out there and give my all. There are chances to win things at this club.”
Another player returning from Inter and aiming to win things is Young’s friend and former teammate Romelu Lukaku, whom the Villa player expects to thrive at Chelsea. “I’m so happy for him,” says Young. “It was the wrong decision for United to let him go. To join him at Inter and see how well he did there was fantastic. I don’t know whether he thinks he has a point to prove [in the Premier League] but I don’t see it like that: his record speaks for itself. He scored a lot of goals at United and everywhere else. I hope he does really well at Chelsea – just as long as he doesn’t turn up against Villa!”