Villa's Greatest Heroes: Charlie Aitken

In the week before this article was written, Gareth Barry took to the pitch for his 352nd game for Aston Villa's first team in all competitions.

It's an astonishing total, but still leaves the club captain more than 300 games shy of the record held by the greatest playing servant in the club's history.

In all, Charlie Aitken made 656 appearances in the claret and blue. His Villa Park career spanned three decades and three divisions, and he outlasted five managers, playing under six.

Longevity is not the only comparison that can be drawn between Aitken and Barry. Both made their debuts as teenagers. Both had to undergo upheaval to even begin their careers - Aitken coming hundreds of miles south from Edinburgh, Barry hundreds of miles north from Hastings. Both were all left foot; "They should chop off your right leg and use it for firewood," pronounced Joe Mercer to Aitken one Saturday afternoon.

The differences, though, were just as pronounced. Aitken's main asset was his speed. "I was so fast I used to laugh at the first team," he remembered later of his apprenticeship. "I once ran past Bobby Thomson and nicked the ball off him. He still tells me now he wanted to kick me up the backside."

Nicking the ball was a skill Aitken perfected. Bone-crunching challenges can result in the ball going anywhere, and that was simply not acceptable to such a perfectionist. Instead, like Moore, Baresi or (of course) McGrath, he would wait for the perfect moment before stealing the ball away.

Such ability seems innate in hindsight, but would have been a shock to even the 17-year-old Aitken who first caught the train to Birmingham. He never truly expected to make it in association football; rugby was his first love, and even now he retains as much affection for the oval ball as the sphere.

Still, someone at Villa saw enough to offer him a year's trial, then a place on tour to Holland, where he first appeared at centre-back. Finally, just one game short of two seasons after his arrival in August 1959, Aitken was given his debut in the last game of the 1960/61 campaign.

The omens were bright; Sheffield Wednesday were ruthlessly dispatched 4-1. But the sixties were to be a painful decade for Aston Villa, arguably the darkest times in the club's history. Boardroom struggles aside - and that's putting a lot aside, with the fans demanding change from a club in turmoil - came the problems on the pitch.

Mercer, who had handed Aitken the debut he had never looked back from, departed a broken man in 1964. Villa had won the first ever League Cup under his stewardship three years earlier, an achievement which bookended Aitken's career at the club. The capture of the same trophy in 1975, coming on the back of promotion to the First Division, was his final moment of true glory in a Villa shirt. It was fitting that Aitken played an astonishing 61 times in the competition; it was something of a shock that his only goal in it was struck with his right foot.

In between, though, came the dark times. Villa were relegated in 1967, and Dick Taylor, Tommy Cummings and Tommy Docherty all sat in the manager's chair in less than two years. None of them could arrest the slide. Nor could Vic Crowe, at first. The Villa captain in that 1961 League Cup win returned as manager of a side in freefall, and the seventies began with Villa in the Third Division for the first and only time in their history.

Such a fall has been the catalyst for a team's revival since. Manchester City slipped to the third tier in the 1990s before beginning their climb back to the top-flight, and once-proud Leeds United spend this season hoping to overcome a 15-point deduction to move one level closer to their historical place.

Unencumbered by such a handicap, Villa made short work of it, though that expression does disservice to the supporters who endured two seasons at a standard far below what they had been raised on. The first season was one of consolidation - Villa finishing fourth - but included a reminder that this was still a giant of the English game. Villa reached the League Cup final before a fairytale ended with defeat to Spurs. Promotion was comfortably achieved the following season.

Still, the Second Division was no place for a man of Aitken's talent. And yet it would take another three years for he and his club to make their way back into the top-flight, winning the League Cup in the same season as finishing second behind Manchester United. By this time, of course, Ron Saunders had succeeded Vic Crowe. Under his guidance, the club entered their most successful time in modern football. Unfortunately for Aitken, who had stuck by the club through thick and thin, he was not part of Saunders' plans.

Like Andy Gray, he does not believe it was footballing ability that led to his problems with Saunders, nor does he think it was age that cost him his place in the team. "I think he hated me because I was more popular than him," said Aitken. "At 33 I was still the fittest man on his books." The Midlands Player Of The Year Trophy, awarded to Aitken in the season that Villa clinched promotion, backs up his claims.

It's impossible to argue with success, and Ron Saunders achieved success. But real life is not a fairytale, Third Division sides in Cup finals aside, and even the greatest heroes in a story can have a dark side.

Saunders' was never more manifest than with Aitken after the club's return to the First Division. The 17-year veteran was kept at the club for almost the whole season until being released on a free transfer - just one hour before the deadline that would allow him to sign for another club. Saunders didn't just end Aitken's time at Villa, he ended his chances of finding another club to play for.

Or maybe not.

Some months later, Aitken accepted an offer from New York Cosmos, and spent two years behind none other than Pele; ageing, slowing and tiring, but still the same man who had terrorised defences around the world. Having spent the best part of a decade alongside players not truly good enough to wear the claret and blue shirt he donned so many times, the swansong of Aitken's career saw him line up alongside the greatest player in the history of the game.

Perhaps real life can be a fairytale after all.