Every club has its legends. But there’s only one Francesco Totti. A 10-year playing career is no mean feat these days; playing for a decade at a single club will have fans singing your name for years to come. Totti spent 28 years at AS Roma, 25 of them with the senior team, playing most of them at a world-class level. No player is likely to come within light-years of that anytime soon.
Totti’s loyalty transcended football, he stayed true to his city. Born 26 September 1976 in Rome, Francesco himself is 7th generation Roman. When he was still a youth footballer, his mother refused a lucrative offer that would have seen her son move to AC Milan. Shortly after, Lazio wanted Totti but one of his coaches helped broker a move to Roma instead. The rest is history. After 785 appearances and 306 goals for Roma, carrying the club to the 2000-01 Scudetto, just their third league title, a Serie A Capocannoniere award as the top marksman in Italy’s top flight during the 2006-07 campaign, a World Cup triumph with Italy, (I could go on for days, here’s the “honours” section of his Wikipedia page) and everything else, the 40-year-old played his final match at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Sunday. The waterworks following the final whistle (in a match where Roma scored a late winner to secure automatic passage to next season’s Champions League) could have flooded the Colosseum during the days when gladiator games were held in the morning and naval battles in the afternoon.
How does this relate to Aston Villa? Well, Totti is so special to not only AS Roma but the footballing community as a whole because we all want to see someone like him at our own club. With Aston Villa, we’ve seen glimpses of that in the recent past, but have been left wanting more.
Gabby Agbonlahor is probably the closest Villa will come. Born in Birmingham, Agbonlahor made his Premier League debut for the Claret and Blues at the age of 19 on 18 March 2006. At the time, it seemed like everything was going Gabby’s way. The breakthrough at club level provided Agbonlahor with a springboard to England’s U-21 squad, and eventually even the senior national team.
For a variety of reasons, Agbonlahor never developed into the player it looked like he was destined to become. Martin O’Neill’s exit spelled disaster for more than a few people around B6, but Agbonlahor may have felt the biggest impact. While he’s still scored a very respectable 73 Premier League goals, 62 percent (or 45 of those goals) came before the start of the 2010-11 season and Agbonlahor’s 24th birthday. The whole world was ahead of him, and it crumbled in his hands. Gerard Houllier had the striker bulk up, reducing the effect of his once-blistering pace. Partying took its toll - as did injuries - but one single factor is not at fault for Gabby’s demise. It’s sad what he ended up becoming (a laughing-stock when he went to fat camp, for example), if only because there was so much potential.
That debut was 11 years ago, Agbonlahor is now 30 with his best days far off in the rearview mirror. Still, should he reach Totti’s current age of 40 while still a Villan, Agbonlahor will have been in the senior team for 21 years.
Villa Park was just three miles from Agbonlahor’s childhood home. Jack Grealish, the most recent Brummie to come through the academy, hails from Solihull - about halfway between Birmingham and Coventry. A Villan through and through, Grealish joined the AVFC youth ranks at the age of 6, making his Premier League debut 10 years later against Chelsea. Grealish’s great-grandfather was even part of the 1905 Aston Villa team that lifted the FA Cup. Claret and Blue is in his blood.
Part of the U-19 team that were Champions of Europe after winning the 2012-13 NextGen Series, the lows have definitely followed the highs for Grealish. Even on the day that he scored his first senior goal, Villa ended up throwing away a 2-0 lead against Leicester City to lose 3-2. We all know how that turned out...
Sadly, Grealish appears to be heading down a similar road as Agbonlahor, and not for dissimilar reasons, and it’s not entirely his fault. Agbonlahor was peaking during Villa’s best spell in the past 15 years, regularly challenging for European places. The club’s slide to mediocrity mirrors that of the player. Now, Grealish can’t be held responsible for the club’s relegation to and now its inability to escape the purgatory better known as the EFL Championship. Help Villa escape, and he can become a hero once again. The same goes for Gabby.
While partying may be slightly hampering Grealish’s development, it’s unfortunately devolved into a rift between the player and some Villa fans, with a few supporters going as far as to attack Grealish via his social media accounts. This isn’t something that Totti had to deal with as a youngster, and is part of the reason that we may never see someone like him again. It’s hard to get upset with fans when your team is winning and you only see good things from the crowd at the stadium on weekends.
Less than a week after Totti’s final game for Roma, reality is starting to set in. The player hasn’t officially announced his retirement, with speculation mounting that he may hop the pond to join NASL’s Miami FC. Traditionalists balk at the idea, but it’s a realistic possibility. And that’s okay. All good things must come to an end.
This isn’t to say that loyalty is dead or that the megamoney of modern football has blurred the game past recognition. Rather than bashing players that leave for more money or get burned out at a club and want to leave, let’s all try to appreciate Totti a little more. He’s so special because he’s particularly unique. Every club should want a player who stays half as long as he does. For this reason, even Grealish and Agbonlahor - despite the fact that they’ll never reach the iconic status of Totti - deserve our support at their worst moments. After all, they’re Villa ‘til they die, just like you and I.