Former Republic of Ireland midfielder and current television pundit Andy Townsend insists playing at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens can play an “invaluable” role for any young player looking to make an impact on the modern global game.
Ex-Southampton, Norwich City, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough midfielder Townsend will make his first-ever trip to Hong Kong as the guest speaker for this year’s Sportsman’s Dinner which will take place on the Thursday before the start of the three-day tournament on May 26.
Townsend won the League Cup in 1994 and 1996 with Aston Villa, who are the defending HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens champions having won a record sixth title at Hong Kong Football Club last year with a 2-0 win over West Ham United in the final.
“I think for any young player they would be excited to play in a competition like this. It is different when you start to pit your wits against teams from other countries as they have a different style and a different beat to the way they play and it is a fantastic experience for any young player to sample that against different cultures and contrasting style,” said Townsend, who earned 70 caps for the Republic of Ireland and reached the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals in 1990.
“I think that is very important for any young players’ grounding in football. It is a very good early indicator for those young boys what might be there for them if they fulfill their ambition of playing at a senior level and playing in European competition and also international football where you start to sample that.
“As much as you can train and prepare, you can’t recreate that scenario so these tournaments are invaluable.”
Heading into the 18th edition this year, the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens has established itself as the breeding ground for stars of the future with the likes of Chelsea and England centre-back Gary Cahill, Leicester City’s Premier League title-winning winger Marc Albrighton, long-standing forward Gabby Agbonlahor and Newcastle United’s Republic of Ireland defender Ciaran Clark having all appeared for Villa over the years.
Jack Grealish is among the current crop of Villa players to have starred at Hong Kong Football Club, and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy helped the side to the 2016 HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens title before going on to turn out for the first team this season.
“Players under 23 and some younger than that, it may be the first time they have had to perform outside of the UK, so to prove they can produce on the road and on their travels, is very important,” added Townsend, who became a TV and radio pundit after retiring in 2000.
“Clubs like to travel much greater distances for commercial reasons, as well as to develop younger players, and this is something a younger man has to get used to in professional football.
“The world is a much smaller place now for a younger footballer and there is a team waiting there who is well prepared with their own quality as well and it is exciting times. The players will use this to prove to their coaches they are ready to step up to the senior level.”
Villa are by far the most successful side at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens having claimed the title a record six times.
Five wins between 2002 and 2010 confirmed the Birmingham-based team as the tournament’s dominant force, before they ended a six-year barren spell in 2016 by seeing off West Ham United in the final to reclaim the trophy.
Villa begin the defence of their title this year in Group C alongside German Bundesliga newcomers Bayer Leverkusen, HKFC U-23 and Singapore Cricket Club.
“Aston Villa have already had a strong and proud heritage of developing younger players and seeing them go on and make tons of appearances for the senior team and also to play international football,” said Townsend, who started his career at non-league Welling United and Weymouth before joining Southampton aged 21 and making his debut in April 1985.
“It is always something that Villa have been proud of with the likes of Marc Albrighton and Gabby have played in Hong Kong and Villa have another good clutch of good young players.
“I have been in to the club a few times recently and delighted to see Steve Bruce has got something going in the second half the season as it is a long road back to the Premier League for Villa, but that road will be supplemented by good young home-grown talent.
“It is no surprise to me that Villa have done well in this competition previously because they do have a strong academy and have an emphasis on finding good talent and trying to nurture it and bring it through.”