Last summer was one of wildly contrasting fortunes for two former class-mates at John Henry Newman secondary school in Stevenage. Lewis Hamilton won back-to-back Formula One Grands Prix and fulfilled a “huge dream” by piloting the McLaren MP4/4 Ayrton Senna employed to wow fans and monopolise the sport during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s on an edition of Top Gear, the award-winning British television series. Ashley Young, by contrast, freefell into misery after being left out of England’s FIFA World Cup™ squad and forced to watch, helplessly, as Fabio Capello’s men flopped in South Africa.
But while some allow disappointment to act as an enervating disease, others use it as invigorating drug. Young falls into the latter category. With England drawing 0-0 at home in their return to action in August, the 25-year-old rose from the bench and provoked Hungarian headaches with his pace, movement and final ball. And after one superb cross he fizzed across the box criminally went begging, he finally did get an assist, tricking his way inside an opponent and playing an inch-perfect pass to Steven Gerrard, from which the Liverpool captain completed his brace and a 2-1 victory.
The cape may have been different three days later, but the crops weren’t. In the claret and sky blue of Aston Villa, Young radiated against West Ham United, playing a hand in Stewart Downing’s opener, forcing Robert Green into a fine save from an intuitive chip, and laying the second on a plate for Stiliyan Petrov en route to a 3-0 win.
Those two performances proved the prelude for what has been Young’s best season for a club he joined from Watford in January 2007 and a country for whom he debuted at senior level in November of that year. Deployed in a free role, just off a solitary striker, with license to utilise the flanks, the jet-heeled No7 has contributed six goals and seven assists in 24 Premier League appearances. It is form that has infatuated Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Bayern Munich, and Capello.
Young made his first start for England in a competitive match against Montenegro in October, capped a superb performance with the winner in a 2-1 success in Denmark in February, and absolutely made the most of his second opportunity to begin a UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against Wales two weeks ago. Indeed, he won the penalty from which Frank Lampard stroked England ahead, and then masterfully squared the ball for Darren Bent to seal a 2-0 away success.
"Ashley has been playing really, really well this season and being linked to top, top sides,” said Bent post-match. “It's because of the form he is showing, like against Wales, that all these clubs are after him. He was fantastic.”
Three days later he may have missed a sitter in a 1-1 draw at home to Ghana, but that momentary flub was drowned by waves of sorcery from Young. He had, arguably, been England’s best player for the third match running. He had, uniquely, featured in their last five outings.
And Capello singled him out for tribute: “All the players played well, but Ashley Young is one of the most interesting players this season. His movement on the pitch is really good at all times. He is a danger when he receives the ball because technically, his vision on the pitch is excellent."
England team-mate Gary Cahill, who played alongside Young for the U-21s and briefly at Villa Park in 2007, has been mightily impressed with the progress he has made. "You can see how much Ashley has developed, even in the time from when I knew him at Villa,” said the Bolton Wanderers centre-back.
“He looks at home on this stage now but, when you've got that ability, you can play on any stage. He gets into little pockets of space and his awareness is outstanding. I thought he was brilliant against Wales and he had another good game against Ghana. His general awareness is good and he is such a threat. I sensed from Ashley's early days that he was going to be a special player. I saw him in the U-21s and he was fantastic. You could see then as a talent he was only going to get better, and that is what he has done."
Enough to become a fixture in Capello’s starting XI? "Who knows whether I've cemented a place? That is down to the manager,” said the modest, media-shy Young. “When I put on the shirt, I've got to put on a good performance. I think I did that against Wales and I felt I did that again against Ghana. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
Inspiring Villa to Premier League survival would likely aid Young’s cause. With just seven rounds remaining, the seven-time English champions - only Liverpool, Manchester United (18 titles apiece), Arsenal (13) and Everton (9) have been crowned on more occasions - sit just two points clear of the relegation zone. And with Arsene Wenger's Gunners and Kenny Dalglish's Reds in their final two games, Gerard Houllier’s charges are desperate to stave off the threat of demotion before the heading into their penultimate encounter.
Young will attempt to accelerate Villa away from the trapdoor on Sunday, when they entertain a Newcastle United side to whom they lost 6-0 in the corresponding fixture and, historically, have a poor home record against, while Hamilton strives to avoid a fourth successive year – a near-alien statistic to him - without a podium finish in Malaysia. Will the emotions of John Henry Newman’s two most celebrated alumni be in equal uniform this time around?