Last week we started our countdown of the top ten players to have represented Aston Villa in the premier league (numbers ten – six can be found here).
The top five can be found below:
In the 118 years that both Aston Villa and AC Milan have existed, only one person has ever moved directly between the two clubs, and what a player he was. Signed by David O’Leary in 2004, Laursen was an established Danish international centre back who had built a strong reputation at Verona in Serie A but then struggled to cement a place in the AC Milan team.
Although Laursen looked promising, playing the first three games of his debut season, the first of many injuries hit him early in that year and he would play only 12 games. The following year was even worse as Laursen aggravated a knee injury in the opening game of the season and would not play again that year. After two injury hit years Laursen’s Villa career looked to be all but over, until Martin O’Neill became Villa manager.
Injury once again ruined Laursen’s first season under O’Neill where he would only play 14 games. However, something about his game impressed O’Neill and he was determined to build the team’s defence around the Dane. Finally, in the 2007/8 season, Laursen was injury free and determined to make his mark, and it was incredible. Perhaps the bravest player to have pulled on a Villa shirt in the Premier League, maybe because he had suffered so many injuries and he felt he had nothing left to lose, Laursen launched himself at every ball or situation with almost complete disregard for his own safety. Above and beyond his bravery though was hia ability, he read the ball like a modern day Paul McGrath and provided a goal threat from centre back that the team had been missing for years.
From playing just 27 games in the three seasons previous, Laursen would incredibly play all 38 games in 2007/8 becoming a fan and manager favourite in the process. Unfortunately, whilst Laursen started the following season in much the same vein, he would suffer a serious knee injury in a game against West Brom in the December that would ultimately force him to retire aged just 31 having played 84 times in the Premier League.
There are very few players I can remember playing for any team that inspired the strength of feeling that Villa fans had and still have for Martin Laursen. I’ll leave you with a personal favourite moment from his time as a Villan.
4. Ian Taylor
Unconditional love from a club’s fans is a rare thing. Eric Cantona has it at Manchester United. Robbie Fowler has it at Liverpool and Alan Shearer has it at Newcastle. At Aston Villa that man is Ian Taylor.
One of their own is a phrase that gets trotted out in irritating regularity by unimaginative commentators, it suggests that a certain player is a fan favourite because he supports the club and relates to the fans. Though half the players this is aimed at don’t qualify for the honour, the phrase could have been invented to describe Ian Taylor. Birmingham born and bred and a Villa supporter from birth, Taylor was still stood on the Holte cheering the team on when he was playing non-league football for Moor Green.
Taylor worked hard for his career, earning his move to league football with Port Vale and impressing enough in the fourth tier in English football to earn himself a move to Premier League Sheffield Wednesday. Within months Villa came calling and snapped him up for just £1m and Guy Whittingham, for Taylor it was never even a decision, he was always going to say yes.
Taylor was the type of box to box midfielder that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, he was more than capable of scoring goals with 28 in 235 league appearances but was just as good at the other end of the field. In his nine years at Villa Taylor played in some good sides and some terrible sides, the one constant being the all action, all effort performances he would produce in midfield. Throughout those nine years, Taylor celebrated every goal and every win just like he was one of the fans and for that he was loved.
There are more talented players than Ian Taylor lower on this list, but none of them can compare when it comes to admiration. Taylor is now in an ambassadorial role with the club and documents his involvement through his twitter account.
Gareth Barry, along with Michael Standing, arrived at Aston Villa in 1997 as a 17 year old from Brighton for a then controversial figure of £2.5m. The two players would go on to have very different careers, where Standing would never make a senior apperance for the club, Gareth Barry would make 353 Premier League appearances and would captain the club from 2006 until his departure in 2008. He played under four managers and was a member of the squad that lost the 2000 FA Cup final to Chelsea.
Barry made his debut as an 18 year old playing at centre back and would continue to play in defence, mostly on the left hand side of a back three, for the first three years of his Villa career David O’Leary came in and identified Barry’s ability on the ball and moved him further up the field to a left midfield position. From there, Barry became a vital part of Villa’s offence, proving that his left foot was as dangerous as any in the league.
Martin O’Neill went one step further, moving Barry into a central midfield position where he really excelled, it was in this role that Barry cemented himself as an England regular and attracted the attentions of Champions League clubs, most notably Rafa Benitez at Liverpool in 2008. So taken by Gareth Barry was Benitez that he was willing to allow Xabi Alonso to leave Liverpool in order to fund a move for him. A move that seemed bizarre to most neutral supporters in the league, but not that strange to the Villa faithful that watched Barry on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately, once Liverpool had made their interest known, the writing was on the wall with regards to Barry’s future at Villa and although he performed exceptionally well in the 2008/9 season following the collapse of his move to Liverpool, Barry would go on to join Man City in 2009 where he would go on to win a Premier League championship and an FA Cup that he was never likely to win at Villa.
Remarkably, now 36 years old, Barry is still playing top flight football and in May 2016 broke the record for most Premier League starts. The reasons that Gareth Barry has been able to play at the highest level into hsi mid-thirties are the same reasons that he was so good at Villa, professionalism, dedication and classy foot skills. I personally wouldn’t bet against him lining up for Everton on the first day of the 2017/18 season.
It really peeves me that one of the greatest strikers to have ever played for Aston Villa is now better known for his time at Manchester United. Fair enough, Yorke won the Champions League and multiple Premier Leagues at Old Trafford but he was never held in the same regard by the United supporters as he was at Villa and I have always resented that the United fans never fully appreciated a man who I regard to be the best forward I ever saw play for my club.
Plucked from obscurity by Graham Taylor in 1989 after Villa had toured the Caribbean, Yorke took his time to establish himself as a first team regular, mostly due to his size. Whilst he was incredibly skillful and quick, he was too lightweight for regular top flight football in England.
It was not until 1994-95 that he became a true regular playing 37 games in a mostly midfield role under Ron Atkinson and later in the season Brian Little. Whilst he had been a decent performer, the six goals that he scored that season was no indication of what would follow the next season. Brian Little’s decision to move Yorke to an out and out forward role paid dividends with Yorke firing 17 goals in 35 league games and helping Villa to a fourth place finish in the league just one year after battling relegation. Yorke was also instrumental in Villa’s 3-0 win over Leeds in the Coca Cola Cup final that year, the last meaningful trophy that Villa have won.
Unfortunately for Villa a fourth place finish in 1996 was only good enough for the UEFA Cup but it did bring European football back to Villa Park and confirmed Villa’s position as potential title challengers, mostly on the back of Yorke’s goals and his partnership with the mercurial Savo Milosevic.
The 1996/7 season saw almost identical numbers from Dwight Yorke, this time hitting 17 goals in 37 Premier League games whilst Villa would finish fifth in the league. By 1997/8 the wheels were falling off the Brian Little bus and Villa flirted with relegation until John Gregory took over in February 1998 and steered the team to an eventual seventh place finish. Yorke did not have the same impact over the course of the season scoring only 12 league goals and being forced to share the lime light with the newly arrived Stan Collymore.
Though his season was less successful that the two previous, in 1998 Dwight Yorke was still very much the jewell in Villa’s crown and it was no surprise when Manchester United came knocking. The tug of war between Villa and United went on all summer appearing in the end that Villa had won out with Yorke playing in the opening game of the 1998/9 season away at Everton. However, Yorke put in an abject display with his body language clearly showing that he no longer wanted to play for the club. Within days the transfer was complete and Yorke joined Manchester United for a then impressive £12.6m.
I was 12 years old when Dwight Yorke left Aston Villa and I don’t know if I have ever been as devastated by sport ever since. Watching your hero join a team that you hate is very hard for a 12 year old to stomach and John Gregory’s claim of wanting to shoot Yorke was a sentiment I echoed. Despite this, and some of Yorke’s questionable behaviour after leaving Villa (kissing the Man Utd badge after scoring against Villa, playing for Birmingham City) he will always have a special place in my heart as my first true hero.
1. Paul McGrath
Was there ever really any other contender for the number one spot?
It is 21 years since Paul McGrath left Aston Villa and he is still referred to as ‘God’. The best defender to have ever played for Aston Villa, probably the best defender to have ever played in the Premier League and possibly one of the best to have ever played the game. Paul McGrath really was that good.
By 1989 McGrath had established himself as a heavy drinker who had two dodgy knees and was closer to 30 than 29, he was exactly the sort of character that Alex Ferguson did not want around the team at Manchester United. Graham Taylor though, saw differently and took a chance that would pay off in spades.
Despite supposedly being finished, McGrath would play some of the best football of his career at Villa Park, he played in sides that finished second in the league, won two league cups and would play end up playing seven seasons for Villa.
In that time he also represented the Republic of Ireland at the 1990 and 1994 World Cup Finals where he famously put on a defensive master class against Roberto Baggio and Italy.in 1994 in a game where he could not move his left arm.
For anyone that has ever read Paul McGrath’s autobiography it is remarkable that he could even play football, never mind be the best player on the field, yet week after week, regardless of the demons he was fighting off the field, McGrath would be immense on it.
Fans of other teams will argue until they are blue in the teeth about a multitude of topics when it comes to football, but you very rarely find someone that disagrees that Paul McGrath was one of the very best.
And so concludes our countdown of the top ten players to have played for Aston Villa in the Premier League, honorable mentions go to Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu, Steve Staunton, Juan Pablo Angel, James Milner, Ashley Young, John Carew and Bosko Balaban.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Aston Villa Contributor
Photo via the Birmingham Mail