Watching England play at any time over the last four or five years has been, by and large, a painful experience. But, for myself and many other Villa fans, that pain has increased year on year and the recent games have only served to emphasize one thing: forget the result or the performance, what's depressingly and overwhelmingly obvious is the sheer quality of footballer who has emerged at Villa Park and then departed, usually once established as one of the Premier League elite, shortly afterwards.
Let's count them: if I can put myself through this, so can you. In the starting line-up at Wembley were Gareth Barry, Stewart Downing, Ashley Young, James Milner and Gary Cahill. Five of them. And nothing especially unusual there, as four of those players started against Bulgaria, too. Fabio Capello's England are flattering and grinding their way unhindered to Euro 2012, and almost half of his team are made up of players who Villa either bought and sold, or raised, developed, and then sold. It's crushing.
As I watched the game through weeping eyes, I mentally calculated a league table of hurt; which player's defection had hit hardest. A kind of bitterness ranking, if you like.
From bottom up, then, and in 5th place it's Stewart Downing. Actually, if I'm honest, he'd be cut adrift from the others as I almost celebrated his departure. Or perhaps wearily accepted it. Never a big fan when Villa signed him from Middlesbrough, I've almost been distinctly underwhelmed by Downing. He can cross a decent ball, and has a reasonable shot on him. In his two seasons with us, we had an ordinary first season (or half season, he joined us while recovering from a broken foot), and then a strong second, when he was one of our stand-out performers.
But I always consider him a 7/10 man, a player to really show in a game when you're leading 1-0 or 2-0, not a player to drag you back into a game when you're behind and struggling. Enticing Liverpool to pay £20m for him was, I thought, a smart piece of business from Villa.
Next up: Young. Surprised? Well, let me explain. In my eyes the most exciting of this quintet, Young would rank as one of my all-time Villa favourites. A thrilling player to watch, matching natural talent with a superb work ethic - he really did bust a gut in his time with us, barely missing a game. Sometimes, he probably tried too hard. The blow of him leaving was softened because it had been inevitable for around a year, and because he joined Man United. He left us for the best team in the country, and one of the best club sides in the world; that's a step-up you cannot debate. My only gripe would be the almost overnight realisation from some sections of the media that Young is a class act; for me, he's been producing top-drawer performances for years.
Barry's in 3rd place. Again, like Young, Villa fans knew for a year or so he'd go; that awful 'will he, won't he?' summer-long transfer to Liverpool saga eventually ending with Barry reluctantly staying with the club for another season before moving to Man City almost as soon as that season finished. Okay, it rankled that he went to City, and it rankled that he was the first major name to leave Villa during the Martin O'Neill reign, but it wasn't unexpected and I thought at the time that we'd got the best years out of him.
In 2nd place: Milner. I love this lad. Him leaving was tough to take as he'd had one superb season in the centre of midfield, where he was a revelation, and I genuinely had not expected him to go anywhere. I was shocked when City came in for him in such a big way. It felt as if Villa had done all the hard work in taking a punt on him, switching him to a new position, watching him blossom... and then City just butted in, like the playground school bully when a smaller kid has something he wants. I expected a bit better of Milner too, to be honest.
Privately, I wondered if City would use him properly, in the middle of midfield. So far, I don't think they have. But he's clearly still key for England.
So finally, at No.1, it's Cahill. I'm reluctant to even go there, to be frank. On the superb Heroes & Villains fanzine website that I regularly visit and post on, Cahill cannot even be referred to by name. He's called, simply, 'the Bolton defender'.
There's a reason for that. It's because it's almost too painful to discuss how wastefully Villa sold him on. Cahill's talent was obvious when he broke through the ranks at Villa, and if there's ever an ideal way to cement a place in the hearts of the Holte End, it's to score against Birmingham. The acrobatic scissors kick he produced magnificently to win a game towards the end of the 2005-06 season was one of the finest I've ever seen at Villa. But O'Neill never seemed to rate him, or if he did he barely picked him, and after signing several other centre-backs to further frustrate Cahill (Curtis Davies, Zat Knight), he moved him on to Bolton for £5m.
It was so predictable that this would come back to haunt us. And unlike the other four defectors, the Cahill sale was avoidable. He didn't really want to go, up until the point it became obvious his first team chances were so limited that he had to leave.
For me, Cahill has everything a modern central defender needs. Good feet, power, pace, discipline, the physique is there and so is the technique; he can take a chance in and around the penalty area as well as any centre-forward. And the worst of it for a Villa fan is that we knew it would end up like this, with him in the England team and coveted by the country's top clubs. Yet we still more or less gave him away.
So yes: galling. I would say so.
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