Top 10 Aston Villa Players of the 21st Century
Unfortunately, I'm not packed full of optimism this season. Whilst Alex McLeish will in no way lead Aston Villa to relegation this season, it's not going to be a heart stopper.
Mid-table obscurity is all I'm expecting, so I thought I'd dig out the memory banks and reminisce.
Here is my compilation of the top 10 greatest Aston Villa players of the 21st century.
These players didn't quite make it onto the list, but deserve a mention:
Gary Cahill (for the scissor kick against Birmingham)
10. Ian Taylor
Ian Taylor is a club legend. He was my favourite player for a long, long time and even though he only played for three seasons in the 21st century for Aston Villa, he deserves a mention because every Villa fan will agree what a wonderful player he was for us.
He is now a club ambassador for Aston Villa and appears regularly on AVTV for interviews. He can be found tweeting every day and interacts very, very well with the fans.
Most Memorable Match: Scoring in the 3-0 demolition of Leeds United in the 1996 League Cup final, but I will always remember him for this famous picture after the Second City derby mauling Birmingham received in 2008.
9. Nigel Reo-Coker/Stiliyan Petrov
I've included Nigel Reo-Coker and Stiliyan Petrov in the same slide. Why? Well, over the last several seasons there has been division amongst the fans as to who to pick for the Aston Villa starting 11.
Under Martin O'Neill—and once James Milner moved into central midfield—Stiliyan Petrov was named captain and was a regular starter. Some fans opposed this and crowed for Reo to have a chance, but his chances in Villa's team seemed doomed after a training ground bust-up with the manager.
Under Gerard Houllier, Reo-Coker was welcomed back into the first team and performed very well throughout the 2010-'11 season. Unfortunately, he was released at the end of his contract.
Petrov remains captain and first team starter for Aston Villa, so the intense debate of "Petrov or Reo" is over.
Stiliyan Petrov (2006-present)
Most Memorable Match: Scoring that long-range screamer at Pride Park towards the end of the 2007-'08 season.
Nigel Reo-Coker (2007-'11)
Most Memorable Match: Nigel was a steady player who did the unnoticed dirty work. Many of his performances were fantastic, but they don't spring to mind. I'll plug for his only-ever Villa Premier League goal at Tottenham in 2008.
8. Dion Dublin
Dublin arrived at Aston Villa from Coventry for £5.75m. He produced some brilliant performances in Claret & Blue, scoring enough goals to justify his fee. He was an unsettling player to play against, using his bulk and strength to make defenders panic.
He could also aptly deputise at centre back (where his career started) and thus became a valuable and versatile member of the Aston Villa squad. He spent a short time out on loan when he fell out of favour, but was quickly re-embraced into the first team squad before long.
Most Memorable Match: Headbutting Robbie Savage in the Second City derby.
7. Gabby Agbonlahor
You just get the sneaky feeling that Gabby Agbonlahor will never leave Aston Villa of his own accord. He is by no means an outstanding player, but he is good enough to stick around, with Agbonlahor saying he wants to play his entire career at Villa Park.
He recently reached the Premier League 50-goal mark—making him hard to omit from the list despite constant concerns over certain aspects of his game. He has fit form this season so far, and looks to be regaining his unbelievable speed. I'll always be happy to see Gabby pull on a Villa shirt.
Most Memorable Match: There have been plenty, but the winner at St. Andrews in 2008 just about trumps the winner he scored at Old Trafford in 2010.
6. Juan Pablo Angel
A £9.5m arrival from River Plate, Angel had a fee to live up to and took his time to bed in. Once he established himself, though, he became a true fan's favourite. We still adore him and, before the arrival of Darren Bent, wished he never left.
He keeps in contact with the Aston Villa fans via Twitter and looks out for our results. A true legend who will remain a fan's favourite for years to come.
Most Memorable Match: For me, that absolute stunner he scored against Chelsea will always bring about a smile. He scored many striker's goals—thus not that many were eye-popping—but he certainly did the business in the end.
5. James Milner
A then-club record fee of £12m was paid to take James Milner from Newcastle United to Aston Villa, and much was expected of him.
Even if he didn't wow the fans with an end product immediately, his unrivalled work rate on the field never failed to satisfy. Martin O'Neill moved him into the centre of midfield after the departure of Gareth Barry and the arrival of Stewart Downing, doing wonders for his career.
Milner has become a very good central midfielder, broke into the English senior squad and is enjoying a bit more playing time for rising stars Manchester City this season. Nevertheless, he gave three (total) good seasons at Aston Villa and left the club with dignity intact.
Most Memorable Match: While he scored in the Carling Cup final, for me, James Milner will be remembered for the goal he scored against West Ham on the opening day of the 2010-'11 season. Dogged by rumours of an imminent transfer to Manchester City, Milner played, committed and worked as hard as ever. The goal capped it off and I will always respect him for the way he carries himself on and off the pitch.
4. Ashley Young
Ashley Young left Aston Villa this summer in an understandable move to Manchester United. The fee received, circa £17m, was a fair fee for an England star with just a year left on his contract. He always committed to the cause and worked hard, tracking back whomever the opposition.
It's a shame he's gone, but he will always be remembered fondly. Young's skill and technique was marvellous to watch and the occasional stunning free-kick had the crowd on their feet.
He played very well over the course of his time at Villa Park and deserved a shot at some silver wear with Manchester United. Good luck to him and thanks for the memories.
Most Memorable Match: The deep injury-time winner against Everton at Goodison Park to make it 3-2. I have never shouted and screamed so loud.
3. Olof Mellberg
Olof Mellberg is one of my favourite Aston Villa players ever. He stayed with us through some tough times and even deputised at right-back for a substantial period when we lacked natural talent there.
When he left the Villans, he paid for signed shirts emblazoned with: "MELLBERG thanks 4 your support." Every fan who turned up to that final-day draw at Upton Park now has something to frame and treasure.
He was a fantastic centre-half for Aston Villa, and if Martin Laursen had gotten his knee working properly during the time he was here, they could have formed one of the league's best pairings at the heart of the defence.
In the end, it was sad to see him leave, but he was seeking new pastures at Juventus and played Champions League football—something he rightly deserved to play in his career.
Most Memorable Match: When it was announced that he was signing for Juventus at the end of the season, Mellberg subbed off at the death in the 5-1 victory over Birmingham City. He received a deserved standing ovation as he fist pumped in mid-air.
He is also the first player to score at the Emirates Stadium, so his name will be in the record books forever.
2. Gareth Barry
Gareth Barry's departure from Aston Villa was, in the end, swift and successful to Manchester City. But one year before that, Liverpool came knocking and the "Barry saga" got completely out of hand.
I personally blame that one on Rafael Benitez and his inability to conduct transfer negotiations in a professional way, but Barry didn't help things go one way or the other. After a summer of speculation, Martin O'Neill started Barry in a UEFA Europa League qualifier—a move that made him cup-tied. Liverpool soon dropped their interest.
Looking back on the good years though, Barry was an outstanding performer for Villa. Starting out as a left-back, he moved into left-midfield before swapping width for the centre, the position that allowed his strengths to really kick in. His passing was fantastic and he represented a calm presence on the pitch at all times.
Most Memorable Match: There are a few I'll never forget. However, it's the winner against Dutch giants Ajax at Villa Park that will stick with me forever, though. What a night.
1. Martin Laursen
For me, there's no one else. As a centre-back myself (albeit in lower leagues, of course), I very much looked up to Martin Laursen and everything he did on the pitch.
He was a true colossus in the air, winning headers consistently at both ends of the pitch. A true goal threat in the opposition box and solid in defence, there were not many who could get the better of him.
It was not surprising that, after several years putting his injuries straight, he turned out to be as good as he was. After all, you don't play for AC Milan if you're rubbish. But after three years of disappointment, he ended up looking like a £3m bargain.
Most Memorable Match: The thumping header against Ajax was incredible, beating Thomas Vermaelen in the air and crashing it home to get Villa's European adventure that year set off to a magnificent start.
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