Aston Villa squad of the century: The midfielders
Though the 21st century might to this point have been trophyless for Villa, some excellent players have worn the famous claret and blue shirt.
Supporters have been helping the Express & Star to compile a 23-man squad of the century so far and over the course of this week we will be sharing the results. Today, it is the turn of the midfielders.
Heading up our list is Gareth Barry, one of three midfielders to be named in every single squad submitted.
Signed from Brighton as a trainee in 1997, Barry made his Villa debut at the age of just 17 and by the time he left in a £12million deal to Manchester City 12 years later, had made 441 appearances in all competitions.
Having initially started in defence, Barry would soon move to midfield and though his time at Villa Park was not without its low points, there were many more highs.
Blessed with an excellent football brain, Barry was the heartbeat of a team which claimed consecutive top-six finishes in 2008 and 2009.
The shame for Villa supporters is that his biggest success came elsewhere, winning two Premier League titles with City. In 2018, Barry became the Premier League’s record appearance holder while with Albion.
Joining him in the heart of midfield is James Milner, another player who shone brightly at Villa before going on to achieve greater success elsewhere.
Milner had already shown his prowess as a winger while on loan from Newcastle during a 2005/06 campaign in which his performances were one of the few bright spots.
After eventually joining Villa in a permanent £12million deal in 2008, it was the 2009/10 season when Milner began to truly show his potential.
Moved in to a central role following Barry’s departure, he was the driving force in a team which once again challenged for Champions League qualification, scoring 12 goals as Villa also reached the League Cup final.
Frustratingly, that campaign also marked the end of Milner’s time in the Midlands as he followed Barry to Manchester City in August 2010, for a fee of £26m.
Another key component of O’Neill’s Villa team was Stiliyan Petrov and the Bulgarian international has also made our squad.
To the general public Petrov is more associated with events off the field, following his successful battle with leukaemia and the superb work of his charitable foundation.
Yet his success on the pitch should never be overlooked. Signed from Celtic as an attacking midfielder with a reputation for scoring goals, Petrov reinvented himself in a deeper lying role at Villa and was a crucial member of the team for several seasons before diagnosis abruptly ended his career in March, 2012.
Though he scored only 12 times in 218 appearances, his long-range effort in the 2008 drubbing of Derby County remains among the most iconic Villa goals of recent years.
While Barry, Milner and Petrov all provided drive from midfield, it was Young who served up flair from the flanks in Villa’s strongest teams of the century so far.
Signed from Watford for £9.65m in January 2007 at the age of 21, Young quickly proved himself a player of real talent and over the next few seasons was a big weapon in Villa’s attacking unit. A right-footer who relished cutting in from the left wing, Young’s delivery and pace helped create countless goals, while he hit the target 39 times himself in 193 total appearances. Like Barry, he was named in every fan squad we received.
When it comes to creativity, Villa have had few better than Paul Merson.
Better known as a forward during his time at Arsenal, Merson was often utilised in a deeper role at Villa where he was able to influence the game.
A player capable of anything on his day who had an eye for the spectacular, he scored 19 goals between 1998 and 2002 and played a key role in the club’s run to the 2000 FA Cup final.
Lining up alongside Merson in the 2000 final was Ian Taylor, a player whose love for Villa since boyhood always ensured he had a special affinity with fans.
But Taylor has not made our squad on sentiment alone, for he also received plenty of love for his performances on the pitch during a nine-year stay with the club between 1994 and 2003.
A non-stop worker in the middle of the park, Taylor also chipped in with his fair share of goals, netting 42 times in 290 appearances, including the second in Villa’s 3-0 1996 League Cup final win over Leeds.
Our final two midfield selections bring us up to the present day and neither needs any introduction.
Grealish is widely regarded as one of the Villa academy’s finest-ever products and over the past two years in particular has begun to prove his potential.
After leading the club on a remarkable charge to promotion, he was enjoying his best season to date before sport was halted by the coronavirus. Selected in every squad we received, Grealish would have been an asset in any of the past 20 years.
The other present day player to be included is John McGinn.
Another hero of last year’s promotion, the Scot was proving his Premier League ability before his own season was halted by injury.
McGinn’s all-action performances have made him hugely popular with supporters and having cost just £2.75million from Hibernian in 2018, he comfortably ranks among Villa’s best value for money signings of the century.
Though he might not have huge top flight experience, in this group he would have the platform to flourish.