Aston Villa: top 30 players - Number 21

We continue our countdown of the greatest players in Aston Villa's history with a defender who sported one of the finest beards the Premier League has ever seen.

21. Olof Mellberg

Born: Gullspang, Sweden, 3 September 1977

Aston Villa career: 2001-2008

Appearances: 263 Goals: 8

Mellberg may not have won any major silverware during his time at Aston Villa, but that should take nothing away from his performances.

Signed by John Gregory from Racing Santander in the summer of 2001 to replace the departed Gareth Southgate, the Swedish centre-half went on to make a fine debut in a goalless draw at Tottenham Hotspur and remained a commanding presence on the backline for the next seven seasons.

As well as wearing the captain’s armband for three seasons between 2003 and 2006, the bearded defender helped the club secure two top six finishes and weighed in with some vital goals in the process, including the first competitive one at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium to usher in Martin O’Neill’s reign with a solid 1-1 draw.

If that wasn’t enough, though, he further endeared himself to supporters with his outspoken dislike of arch rivals Birmingham City, infamously causing a storm with his heated comments about the Blues ahead of the derby in December 2004.

"I just feel, I've got the feeling, that I just don't like them,” he told Sky Sports News when asked whether he would ever consider following former Villa striker Dwight Yorke’s lead in joining Birmingham later in his career.

“That's just the feeling I get from the whole club and the fans. My feelings from the games.

"It is the biggest derby I have played and derbies are probably the biggest games overall in club football so Birmingham City is not an option for me, no."

Rarely putting a foot wrong – even when asked to play out of position at right-back, Mellberg could surely have left Villa for bigger things well before signing a pre-contract agreement with Juventus in early 2008, but such was his affection for the club that he opted to spend arguably the best years of his career in the Midlands.

Even when his impending move to Italy was announced, he continued to perform consistently during the remaining months of his deal and cemented his hero status with his passionate celebration upon being substituted during the closing stages of the 5-1 home win over Birmingham.

A month later, the long-serving stopper arranged for every one of the 3,200 fans who made the trip for his farewell match at West Ham United to be presented with a replica shirt as a final parting gesture.

He had long since repaid his original £5.6 million transfer fee by that stage, and upon hanging up his boots in the summer of 2014 after further stints at Juve, Olympiakos, Villarreal and FC Copenhagen, the claret and blue faithful paid him glowing tributes.

Internationally, he played 117 times for Sweden from 2000 to 2012, including at two World Cups as captain and four straight European Championships, and scored two of his eight goals in a 3-2 group stage defeat to England at Euro 2012.

Former teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic hailed his old skipper as the country's greatest-ever defender in a heartfelt letter after he announced his retirement, and it's certainly hard to disagree with that sentiment.

Since embarking on his managerial career with Swedish third division side IF Brommapojkarna, a potential return to Villa Park as a coach at some stage in the future would undoubtedly be well received.

Aston Villa: top 30 players

Number 30, Number 29, Number 28, Number 27, Number 26, Number 25, Number 24, Number 23, Number 22

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