John McGinn has been earning rave reviews for his performances this season and at a fee of around £2million is considered a bargain. Many Villa supporters are over the moon that we have finally decided to spend wisely in the transfer market. In the past, we have thrown obscene amounts of money hoping for instant success.
As I stated, the fee we paid to Hibernian for the Scottish midfielder is looking pretty cheap. Having squandered so much money and having so little to show for it started me thinking. McGinn is certainly a rarity in recent times, but who else over the years has really turned out to be value for money?
So, here, in no particular order, is my top 10 of our best bargain buys in the Premier League era. For those of you about to bemoan that there were football pre-1992, it’s purely a happy coincidence that as a 9-year-old, that’s when I first seriously started watching Villa!
Gareth Barry: £1.25 million from Brighton
Villa had originally hoped to pay just £50k for Barry which truly would’ve been a bargain. In the end, the fee set by tribunal still proved to be peanuts for a player who made over 350 league appearances for the club.
Like several others who have come and gone, Barry, unfortunately, was persecuted for wanting to move on. Even after giving 12 years of service which marked a sad end to such a long association. A versatile player, Barry began as a centre back before his technical game was utilised more aptly in midfield. A good passer and surprisingly for a player with limited pace, a good dribbler. He would also often weigh in with a useful goal tally come to the end of the season also, helped by being a superb penalty taker.
The midfielder always seemed to face criticism that despite being rock solid in all areas of his game, he never quite reached elite levels. But becoming the Premier League’s all-time appearance record holder as well as racking up 53 caps for England doesn’t happen by accident. And for Villa, he was such an important player for such a long time.
Christian Benteke: £7.92 million from Genk
Despite the team itself struggling badly throughout his three-year stay at Villa Park, his goalscoring form virtually guaranteed the club’s survival for each of those seasons.
Benteke displayed an incredible range of goals, from overhead kicks, 20-yard screamers, and free kicks. A sale to Liverpool of £41.85 million saw Villa rake in a huge profit, as well as effectively bringing in millions more during his stay by ensuring the club remained in the Premier League for longer than we probably should’ve done.
Many Villa supporters still harbour hopes of Benteke returning one day and rediscovering the form that has deserted him since leaving Villa Park.
John Carew: Swap deal with Milan Baros from Lyon
At the time of this transfer, John Carew was a striker of some reputable pedigree, despite embarking on a slightly nomadic career around Europe. By contrast, Milan Baros had proven himself to be increasingly largely disinterested in playing for Villa. A straight swap deal, a rarity in itself, seemed too good to be true.
The arrival of Gerard Houllier, the manager in charge of Lyon at the time of Carew’s swap deal proved to be the beginning of the end for the Norwegian international. We never quite saw the same player who had bullied defences and scored some memorable goals. Carew would finish as top scorer in each of the three consecutive seasons we finished 6th under Martin O’Neill, highlighting just what an important player he was.
Olof Mellberg: £6.12 million from Racing Santander
I desperately wanted to fit in Martin Laursen in this list who, despite injuries, was great value at £3 million. But space dictated having to choose between the Dane or the Swede. And It’s hard to think of a player who is more loved than Mellberg. Whilst a fee of a little over £6 million isn’t necessarily cheap, Villa certainly got their money’s worth out of the deal. The defender gave seven years of full-bloodied commitment and quality performances, even when shifted out to right back which happened frequently.
Mellberg was exceptional on the pitch, could seemingly grow a full-on beard in less than a week. He forever endeared himself to Villa fans by proclaiming that ‘I’ve got the feeling that I just don’t like them‘ regarding Birmingham City. Succinct and completely encapsulating the mood of the whole fanbase in one sentence. The legend was born.
If that wasn’t enough, Mellberg cemented his hero status further by buying a shirt for each fan attending his last ever game for Villa away at West Ham. He had the words ‘Thanks 4 your support’ adorned on the back. A true professional, I’ve never met a single Villan begrudging Mellberg his free transfer to Juventus.
Thomas Hitzlsperger: Free from Bayern Munich
Perhaps an unusual choice for some. However, his bizarre Brummie/German accent is the legacy of a young man joining us with a passion to play football. Many would have taken the easy option of staying with Bayern Munich. He left us with some exceptional and memorable goals.
Hitzlsperger’s qualities of a neat and tidy passer are always overlooked in favour of his ferocious left-foot shot. Villa fans quickly nicknamed him ‘Der Hammer’ and urged him to shoot whenever possible. And for good reason. Of his total of 12 goals in claret and blue, 11 of them were scored outside of the box.
A sour relationship with David O’Leary, who spitefully denied the German a final farewell by leaving him out of his final matchday squad, contributed to Hitz returning home. There he showed his quality and was a key player for VfB Stuttgart as they broke Bayern Munich’s stranglehold on German football by winning the Bundesliga in 2006/07. He also won an impressive 52 caps for a strong Germany side, playing alongside the likes of Michael Ballack and Bastian Schweinsteiger. There was much more to Hitz than his shooting ability.
Alan Wright: £1.35 from Blackburn Rovers
The ‘Mighty Atom’ was one of the first people Brian Little bought in to overhaul Ron Atkinson’s ageing squad of players. His diminutive stature of just 5ft 4″ didn’t hold him back (although it did force him to return a Ferrari that he had bought due to trouble reaching the pedals comfortably!). He would be instrumental at left back over the next 8 years.
Clocking over 300 games in total, including 26 European matches (which makes him Villa’s third highest European appearance holder behind Gordon Cowans and Dennis Mortimer). Wright was a steal at just over £1million, contributing hugely to Villa’s 1996 League Cup success and run to the 2000 F.A Cup final.
Wright didn’t score many goals, but his spectacular efforts against Middlesborough in 1996 and Spurs in 2000 were typical of his ability to finish from range when the chance to shoot presented itself.
Luc Nilis: Free Transfer
An unusual choice for a player who made just three appearances for Villa, this is more a case of ‘what if’. Nilis was prolific everywhere he played, with the original and best Ronaldo, as well as Ruud Van Nistelrooy both claiming him to be the best striker they ever played with.
A superb flick up and volleyed goal against Chelsea is all we have to remember the Belgian before he horrifically shattered his leg in a match against Ipswich. That moment of quality was a cruel glimpse at the skill and talent that we could’ve had. And who knows where a fit and firing Nilis would’ve taken an already talented Villa squad.
Nilis’ single goal is one of my all time favourites. The fact that he played just three games doesn’t alter the fact that, on a free, we still saw enough to show that he would’ve been a bargain buy. And that gets him into my top 10.
Paul Merson: £5.4 million from Middlesborough
Simply one of, if not the very best I’ve ever seen in a Villa shirt. Again, a fairly chunky transfer fee pales into comparison with the joy of watching the magic man. His goals, including those against Coventry City which sent the Sky Blues down. And a 35 yarder against Everton in the 90th minute to snatch an undeserved 1-0 victory, have become legendary.
Merse has admitted he enjoyed his time at Villa more than any other part of his career and leaving after four years left him in tears. Already thirty by the time he came to Villa Park, I can never help but wish we’d had him even just a couple of years earlier.
Watching a player of the skill and calibre of Merson in a Villa shirt was an absolute dream. There was no pace, and his fitness was questionable at times, but none of that mattered when he had the brain and finesse to conjure up the impossible.
Ian Taylor: £1.35 million from Sheffield Wednesday
Tayls didn’t just live off the fact he supported Villa. His committed displays, streaky runs up and down the pitch and ability to score goals made him one of our best ever midfielders.
Taylor always seemed to be criminally underrated outside of Villa Park, going about his job quietly and diligently without grabbing many headlines. But I’m absolutely certain that Villa’s mid-late 1990’s success would’ve taken a hit without Taylor’s combative displays each week.
Gareth Southgate: £3.38 million from Crystal Palace
Another potentially divisive choice due to the way the now England manager engineered a move away to ‘more ambitious’ Middlesborough. The fact remains that Southgate was an exceptional defender for Villa for six years.
Holding the club’s record transfer fee for a matter of days until Savo Milosevic’s arrival smashed it, Southgate quickly slotted into Brian Little’s fluid 3-5-2 formation. A tactic now employed to good effect in the England national team.
Southgate was more than just a steady pro. His intelligence as a player was exemplary, and he read the game from the back incredibly well. Ugo Ehiogu’s marked improvement alongside him was no coincidence. One of the best leaders and captains the club has ever had.
*Transfer fees are taken from transfermarkt.