Villa's Greatest Heroes: Ian Taylor

"Put it this way," said Ian Taylor, when asked if he was likely to renew his contract after nine years at Villa Park. "It wouldn't cost a fortune for Villa to keep me on."

I dare say a whip round on the Holte End each week would have sufficed.

I'd also be willing to bet the fans would have been happy to give more than just spare change. There have been times I would have remortgaged my house to have Taylor back in his prime and wearing claret and blue.

Ian Taylor loving the Villa

By the time he left the club - whatever small amount he was asking failing to materialise as the steering wheel passed from the hands of Graham Taylor to David O'Leary - his best days might have gone. That he would go on to play another 150-odd times in the Football League speaks volumes for his character and determination.

As does the way he came into the game. Taylor followed a route few men now take into top-flight football, beginning his career in the non-league arena. Many of the best of his contemporaries and peers had the same background; none of Ian Wright, Stuart Pearce or Paul McGrath had the luxury of daily coaching on pitches like snooker-tables.

It's little wonder that men who have stacked shelves in factories or worked for a couple of pounds an hour often have more of a bond with the fans than those who, however much effort they put in in the academies up and down the country, are brought up in the peculiar world of football. Nor is it a surprise that the former group often seem to be willing to go that extra mile on the pitch. They know how lucky they are.

Taylor began his football career with Moor Green. The club, incidentally, merged with Solihull Borough to form Solihull Moors earlier this year, and are currently battling relegation from the Conference North. In Taylor's time, at the start of the nineties, they were on something of a high, and Taylor's eye-catching displays in the Southern League were enough to earn him a move to Port Vale in July 1992. At the age of 24, he had achieved the dream of every schoolboy. He had broken into league football.

Did Port Vale ever spend a better £15,000? If so, I can't think where. When Taylor left Vale Park, it was for a seven-figure sum; Sheffield Wednesday paying £1,000,000 for his signature two years to the day after his arrival into league football. Before then, Taylor had powered Port Vale back into the second tier of English football.

He scored 28 goals in just 83 league games for the Staffordshire club, and thus revealed an important part of his game. Taylor is often remembered as a defensive midfielder; the energy and drive that were so crucial to his game breaking down many an opposition attack. In fact, as any Villa fan who watched him tirelessly set off up the pitch after doing so will tell you, he was the embodiment of box-to-box; often picking the right time to continue into the area and net a crucial goal.

A goal is all he had time to contribute for Sheffield Wednesday in the Premiership. He spent just five months at the club before Brian Little matched the fee the Owls had paid to bring him back to his hometown. The move went through on December 21, and Taylor's personal Christmas miracle was completed a few days later; he scored on his debut for his boyhood team in front of the Holte End. He remembers that strike, against Chelsea, as his favourite moment in claret and blue.

That may surprise some, who would expect him to point to a strike 15 months later - Villa's second at Wembley in the League Cup final demolition of Leeds United. "I can't remember much about it, to be honest," a grinning Taylor admitted on the Wembley touchline at the final whistle.

Still, the moment was special. As every Villa fan knows, Taylor had been amongst their number three years earlier; then a Port Vale player, he had been part of the crowd that roared their heroes on as they denied Manchester United the treble. How quickly fairytales can be written.

"I've been a Villa fan all my life," said the man whose name was being sung by the men he had grown up amongst. "And I thought I'd come to Wembley to watch the boys. To play now, and score, is phenomenal."

At the time, it seemed like Villa - contenders at the right end of the league, FA Cup semi-finalists, winners of two trophies in three years - were on the road to something equally phenomenal. It wasn't to be. The next seven years, in which Taylor would take his appearances tally for Villa to 292 games, featured European football (which in turn saw Taylor goals and that memorable clash against Atletico Madrid) but no more silverware.

The other players came and went. Taylor played alongside both McGrath and Mellberg, both Spink and Schmeichel. The man who opened the scoring in Villa's last league win over Manchester United in August 1996 had enough energy left in those long legs to play in midfield alongside Thomas Hitzlsperger, Joey Gudjonsson and Peter Whittingham in his last appearance for the club, appropriately enough away to Leeds.

In the days before that, no-one knew if Taylor's contract was going to be renewed. Not the fans, not the man himself. There was no time to plan a proper goodbye.

Luckily, in fairytales, these things always work out. In this case, they worked out twice.

The first time was in the summer of 2004, when Aston Villa met Derby County in a pre-season friendly. Ian Taylor scored the winning goal against his former club. The reaction was like nothing I have seen; the cheering from the Villa fans at the goal they had conceded drowned out the supporters who were supposed to be celebrating.

The second time came later, after three more years of hard toil. On April 27, 2007, Taylor took to the field for Northampton for a League One clash with Huddersfield Town. The crowd seemed unusually large for a Friday night match. It was. Hundreds of Villa fans had swelled the Sixfields ranks.

"It was great that so many of them came along," Taylor told this website later. "It had been arranged beforehand that I would play for an hour and then come off, which is what happened. The crowd gave me a great reception as I left the pitch - and then I noticed the Villa fans were leaving the ground!"

They had a game to get to the next day, in Manchester, where "There's only one Ian Taylor," rang around the City Of Manchester Stadium throughout Villa' game.

Perhaps he hadn't realised the esteem he was held in. It didn't need adding to after his performances on the field - never has a man epitomised more Ron Saunders' legendary demand for 110% effort. Still, Taylor managed to enhance his reputation in October 2005 when, instead of taking a seat in the directors box or VIP area, he stood amongst the Aston Villa fans who had crossed the City to St Andrews' for the derby, and was captured on Match of the Day's cameras. He was back there last month, cheering Gabriel Agbonlahor's late winner.

I would argue that only Paul McGrath and Brian Little have been taken so completely to the hearts of the Villa fans as Ian Taylor. The man himself would tell you himself he did not have the ability of either man - who does? But, as with cult heroes in all walks of life, there is a tendency to overlook just how good he was.

Taylor wasn't just a Villa fan taken from the stands and put into midfield; the Holte End does not forgive untalented players. He was, first and foremost, an excellent footballer. He remains and will do, a legend amongst the fans.