It’s clearly an ‘Aston Villa fan thing’ to want more of Marc Albrighton.
There’s a moment 45 minutes into Claret & Blue’s epic Zoom chat with Alrighton when we stop to ask if he would mind hanging around for another half an hour.
He generously agrees and we proceed to keep him for another hour. And then some.
Perhaps we’re trying to make up for lost time by preventing him from going too early again.
Albrighton infamously left Villa when his boyhood club failed to offer him a new contract back in 2014.
A Premier League winners medal with Leicester City helped him get over it – so there’s so much to talk about when we catch up with him over a video hangout for our Claret & Blue podcast and You Tube channel.
Flick through Marc Albrighton’s brilliant Aston Villa photo album here
So much, in fact, that we’re splitting this interview into a two-parter as there’s too many brilliant memories and insights to cram into one.
From being shellshocked by a swearing superstar to sending secret toilet cubicle text messages, Albrighton is compelling company and a great story-teller and that’s even before he touches upon that triumph in the face of such professional and personal adversity in Part Two.
All in good time.
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This claret and blue boy is now 30 years old, but let’s take him way back to the beginning.
To help us picture those humble beginnings, Albrighton drops us a message on WhatsApp a short while after we talk to share some brilliant never-before-seen photos from the time he fell in love with football.
That he and his mom Carol took the time and trouble (it coincided with Mrs Albrighton returning to her teaching job after lockdown) to dig out the pics is a tribute to the everyman qualities of the player and the down-to-earth nature of his family.
Before we go on though- how massive and heavy does that football look at the feet of the young Albrighton in the picture above?!
Anyway, we digress.
To the uninitiated, Albrighton grew up in Tamworth in a very claret and blue household indeed.
Football was his life from as early as he can remember and while dad Terry immersed him in the game, his father was never a pushy parent.
“He’s not competitive in the slightest, he always just wanted what I wanted,” Albrighton says.
“He never had to be competitive because it was always my decision and it was everything I wanted to do. There were times where he’d have to pull me in from outside because it was pitch black and I had school the next day.
“He never pushed me to do anything. He was happy to go along with everything I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, he wanted me to make it as a footballer, because football was his life as well. He didn’t really have to do too much pushing.”
If anything, Albrighton senior had to rein his mini-kicker in a little bit as the family lawn took a battering.
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“I was in the garden constantly,” he smiles. “I can just remember my mum and dad’s garden.
“All of the pictures just have a strip of mud right down the middle of the garden. At the time, my dad obviously went ‘You need to get off the grass! You’re ruining the grass!’
“Now I’ve got my own grass and my own kids, I know how he feels.
“I remember going to one of the local schools and they did a ‘Mini Kickers’ type thing over on the field.
“It was one of my dad’s mates that was running it, and I remember getting to the sidelines and looking in awe. All I wanted to do was to get out there.
“There were two groups – an older group and a younger group. I remember being in the younger group for probably five minutes and the guy who ran it said ‘You need to go in the older group, because no-one else is getting a touch’. I headed over to the older group, and physically, it was obviously difficult but I held my own.
“I remember my dad promising me an Everton….”
It’s at this stage that Claret & Blue does a double take. Our Marc, the boyhood Villa fan, being promised an ‘Everton’ anything puts us on a state of high alert.
Phew, we needn’t have worried.
“I remember my dad promising me an Everton mint every time I scored a goal,” he continues.
“I think we got in the car one day, and I’d score like eight or nine goals, and he said, ‘We need to amend this, you can’t be eating eight or nine Everton mints every week!’.”
When he wasn’t wrecking lawns or rotting teeth, Albrighton had short stints for a number of junior clubs in the Tamworth area and has particularly fond memories of playing for Mile Oak Monarchs on a pitch behind the landmark hotel, especially the post match chip butties and friendly family vibe.
West Bromwich Albion were the first to come knocking, but any slight disappointment he had about an unsuccessful trial with the Baggies subsided when Villa arrived on the scene to sign him as a seven-year-old.
“I can’t remember, really, how it ended at West Brom,” he says. “There were reports I got released, but I never signed anything there.
“They asked me to go for a six or an eight-week trial. Me and another lad from Mile Oak. The other lad was a goalkeeper, we travelled there together twice a week.
“There was no games at the time, we were only seven. There was no games at that age then. I remember going on what seemed like a massive astroturf pitch.
“There must have been like 300 kids there. I stuck it out for a bit, but I just didn’t enjoy it. I think my mum and dad knew I didn’t enjoy it, it just didn’t feel right, I’d rather go and train or go and play in the garden.
“I never enjoyed it. I don’t really know how it ended, if I stopped going, or if they said they’d seen enough. I remember it being a close period between stopping that and Villa coming in for me.”
By then Marc, just like his old man, was Villa through and through. Signing for a professional club, his club, did cut him a bit of slack with teachers who would take an interest in his football and excuse him occasionally drifting off in lessons into daydreams about playground kickabouts.
It was Villa, Villa and more Villa.
One of the pictures he sends us is an adorable snap of him hunting down Phil King’s autograph at Bodymoor Heath in the mid-90s. It’s accompanied by a brilliant Birmingham Mail cutting talking up the talent of Albrighton and another kid called Daniel Sturridge.
“It started with my dad – he was Villa through and through,” he beams. “He tells me about the times when Villa won the league at Arsenal, and he was there.
“He went to the European Cup final and he’s got all of the photos. Everything was Villa, my room was a Villa quilt, Villa wallpaper.
“To then go to the training ground, I literally had no idea that academies existed, or that you could be signed by clubs. I was just naive to it all. It was the best thing that could have ever happened.”
Before joining Villa, Albrighton and his Dad used to watch Villa from the Witton Lane Stand and switching to the Trinity Road stand behind the old brick dugouts when he was on the club’s books.
“John Gregory was the manager at the time and he had the loudest whistle in football,” he recalls before sharing a fascinating tale of another time when he couldn’t believe his ears.
It was on November 22 2003, that a 14-year-old Albrighton realised he was well and truly in the presence of the big boys when one of his heroes turned the air (claret and) blue.
“When we were younger, it was a much smaller training ground,” he explains.
“You had no option other than to be around each other. The first real memory I’ve got was the Rugby World Cup final against Australia, and as the academy, we had the option whether to go in or not.
“I didn’t take an interest in rugby, but I went in and there were three of us in the end. We went into the building after for food, and I remember going into the Parents’ Lounge and the first-team were in there watching the end of the game. I remember looking around, and there were players like Dion Dublin, they seemed like eight or nine foot tall.
“I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as them. They were talking about the game and the camera was panning onto the Australian players and they were swearing at each other, and when I was that age, I thought, ‘Oh my god! Dion Dublin swears’.”
Seeing Dublin, all 6ft something of him, might have convinced the spindly youngster that he wasn’t cut out to carry on playing as a centre forward, had his Bodymoor coaches not already come to that conclusion on his behalf.
“I was a centre-forward, a striker for the majority of my time growing up. I didn’t really grow as much when I was younger. Everyone else seemed to take the shoot, but I missed it. I was coming up against defenders that were six-foot already. I remember playing Coventry and they had a centre-half, who was probably double my size.
“From then on, it was just, ‘Do you want to go out to the wing? You’ll get more space out there and won’t have to play with your back to goal the whole time.’. I tried that, and it went on from there.”
You can watch our Marc Albrighton exclusive in full here
Reserved rather than shy, the work ethic instilled in Albrighton by Terry and Carol continued to shine through as he strived to impress on and off the Bodymoor Heath practice pitches.
Over the course of our Claret & Blue interviews, several former Villa youth teamers, – Gabby Agbonlahor, Barry Bannan and Lee Hendrie – have extolled the virtues of training ground chores for character-building and making the transition from youth team to first team dressing room.
Albrighton agrees, but he acknowledges that he drew the short straw when they were handing out boot-cleaning duties.
“I got John Carew’s boots, which as you can imagine, weren’t the smallest boots,” he laughs. “They were quite large.
“The youth team had to wear black leather boots, but the first-team could wear whatever boots they wanted. They had red and yellow material, all different colours. I’d never cleaned these boots before, I’m just used to scrubbing them. With material boots, you can’t do that. You can’t get them too wet because the players don’t like it. That was a difficult baptism.”
Not only that but some of the first team squad players would take great delight in making the young lads lives even tougher 0 including former academy graduate Craig Gardner.
“Once they’d finished, we had to hang around and collect all of the balls that could have been everywhere,” recalls Albrighton.
“I remember Craig Gardner used to do shooting practice every session, and on their last shot, they’d deliberately shoot it into the quarry and we’d be fetching them. With the kitman at the time, he was quite intimidating for a young player. If you didn’t have a full set of balls to bring back to him, he’d go crazy at you. It was quite a tough time.”
Albrighton was his own worst critic as he came through the ranks at Bodymoor. His impressive progress had the youth team coaches purring about him in excited whispers, but his own self confidence took a little more convincing even when boss Martin O’Neill called him up to train with the senior squad for the first time.
“I remember it being a really sunny day,” he says. “I got the call, I was in the gym at the time, someone must have got injured. I remember coming out of the fire exit doors at the gym and it was really sunny, the pitch was absolutely immaculate, there was fresh water on it, the white Premier League balls. I remember walking over there – there were players like Gareth Barry – who I was just in awe of. For the first year, I couldn’t get to grips with the fact I was training with these players every day.
“I was probably a bit reserved. If I do a couple of bad things wrong, it gets in my head and affects the rest of my game. This was the same in the training. Some of the drills we were doing, it was one-touch, and you wouldn’t get the time you get in the reserve league and in the youth league.
“The day before every game, we’d do two 10-minute games, or three 10-minute games, and the last 10-minute game would always be one-touch. I was lost. The ball was coming to me at a real quick pace and the rest of the players on the pitch knew exactly where they were going to put it, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It took some getting used to.”
The Peace Cup was a breakthrough fortnight for Albrighton in the summer of 2009. Called up to attend the summer pre-season tournament, the 19-year-old scored his first senior goal and also claimed a couple of assists as Villa won the trophy in Spain. It was a time when Albrighton finally felt like he belonged, that the profession he had spent his life preparing for deserved to be stamped on his passport – professional footballer.
By then he had already made his competitve debut, in ,much colder conditions than Andulucia in August.
Albrighton’s claret and blue bow came in controversial circumstances five months earlier on a freezing Moscow night as Villa crashed out of the UEFA Cup to CSKA Moscow.
All of the post match fall out was dominated by fans venting their anger at O’Neill for the wholesale changes that caused the costly 2-0 defeat.
Not that Albrighton got distracted by that. Before he played the entire 90 minutes in a second string side, he made sure he sneaked off to send a secret message to his folks.
“Martin O’Neill used to read the team out in the dressing room an hour beforehand,” he remembers.
“There was talk that I might be playing, might not be, but you’re never sure until the team’s read out. I knew we’d taken such a young squad out there, so I knew there was a chance.
“As soon as he named the team, I sneaked my phone back into my pocket, went into one of the cubicles to text my dad, and my mum, to tell them I was playing but it wasn’t on the TV, so there was somewhere that was showing it that we knew about.
“They said if you’re playing to let them know so they could watch it. I sneakily had to do that in the toilets and then went to get ready for the game. There were a few fans at the airport on the way back that showed they weren’t happy towards the manager for taking all the players but there were a few that came up to us and said well done, which was great at the time.”
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Whether it was because of the claret and blue backlash, whether he had a dressing room full of Premier League experience, or whether he thought Albrighton wasn’t quite ready for more, O’Neill would only use Albrighton sparingly from that moment onwards.
“For the first part of it, I was just happy to be around that squad,” he adds.
“As time went on, there was a bit of me thinking I was ready to move on and play a bit more. I’m ready to take somebody’s place, if you like.
“At that time, though, we had such a good side. We were finishing sixth in the league. It was difficult and a lot of the time, you would go into the dressing room, and Martin O’Neill would go, ‘Right, same team, same subs’, that was you in the stand again.
“It was good in the fact that I was travelling and I got to see first-hand where I’d usually be in the crowd anyway, it was good in that sense.
“But from my point-of-view because I had that little carrot dangling, I was so close to it, that I just wanted to make some appearances and put my name out there.”
(With thanks to Bobby Vincent for his transcription services).