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Second City and South Coast: Aston Villa and Brighton’s club connections

Ahead of Aston Villa’s trip to the South Coast, we look at the links between our Villans and the Seagulls.

Aston Villa v Sunderland - Premier League
BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 27: Gareth Barry of Aston Villa looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sunderland at Villa Park on September 27, 2008 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Brighton & Hove Albion host Aston Villa for only the fifth time in English top flight history this Saturday, but whilst the two have only met five times since the turn of the millennium, there’s plenty of players that connect the Seagulls and Lions.

Several players have directly swapped between Villa and Brighton, but throughout history, there has been plenty of Villans that have stopped by on the south coast in what have been glittering careers for the likes of Dennis Mortimer and Gareth Barry.

Here’s the list…

Gareth Barry

Born in Hastings, Gareth Barry’s prolonged career began 40 miles west of his hometown, at Division Two club Brighton. He spent 12 years at his first club but never made a first team appearance for them.

Steve Gritt sold the then youth prospect to Villa for a reported £50,000 in 1997 before Barry developed into a first team midfielder when he penned his first professional contract a year later, on Barry’s 18th birthday, February 23, 1998.

Though a move to the Midlands was steeped in controversy as Brighton demanded a £2.5 million compensation package from Villa. The Football Association’s transfer tribunal panel came up with a deal which would have seen Brighton make £2.4 million in the event of Barry making international appearances for England, as well as sell-on clauses.

Barry replaced fellow Villa icon Ian Taylor in a 3-1 at Hillsbrough in ’98 to make his first appearance of the 441 he’d go on to make for the Villans. He later went on to smash Ryan Giggs’ long standing Premier League appearance record. As of January 2020, Barry was made 653 top flight appearances, with Villa, Manchester City and West Brom. Having played over three decades, Barry has scored 53 goals, and won 262 matches in the Premier League. After leaving Villa having been a mainstay and captain at Villa Park, he won a league title and FA Cup trophy with Man City in 2011 and 2012.

At Villa, Barry was so fondly supported, and after a decade at the club he was awarded with a ten-year testimonial at the age of just 26. In that same year of 2008, Barry - approaching 400 total appearances for Aston Villa - was the longest serving player in the team. During his time under Martin O’Neil, Barry became the youngest player to appear in 300 Premier League games surpassing former record-holder Frank Lampard.

Dennis Mortimer

Down the years, Villa have had their fair share of club legends or icons, but no matter how you describe them, when it comes to historic moments in this club’s exemplary history, Dennis Mortimer holding aloft a gleaming European Cup will forever live in the memory of many.

Mortimer, alongside Jimmy Rimmer and Peter Withe were the father figures of a squad that conquered all before them, including Europe. He was the longest-serving member of that 1982 team and was the undisputed driving force.

On the Heroes and Villains fanzine blog, Steve Kirk remembered Mortimer’s time at the club. He said: “My favourite ever Villa player, he signed around December ‘75 and in that first half season only showed glimpses of what he was capable of, from then on though he got better and better, brilliant all-round midfielder.

”My greatest memories are of him standing on the half way line looking for options and if none were available he would burst forward directly toward the opposition penalty area causing panic, my mates and I would be on the Holte saying he’s going to go any second now, you could sense it, very exciting at the time.”

Mortimer left Villa to join Brighton in 1985 and by the time he retired two years later he had amassed more than 700 appearances for his various clubs.

John Gregory

John Gregory too played for both Villa and Brighton, but unlike his managerial stints that seemed to follow the pattern of playing days, he didn’t manage Brighton. Gregory led Villa to an FA Cup final on the turn of the millennium, before winning an Intertoto Cup before leaving Villa again for Derby and QPR as a manager.

Born in Scunthorpe, Gregory made six England appearances, and at club level made his professional debut in 1972 at the age of 18 when playing for Northampton Town. In 1977, he transferred to First Division Aston Villa.

Despite playing two divisions higher than he had ever done before, he adapted well to First Division football and scored 10 goals in 65 games over the next two seasons with Villa. Gregory holds a little piece of history as a Villa player, as he remains the only player to have played in every outfield position, wearing every number from 2 to 11 over his two seasons with the club.

In 1979, Gregory signed for Brighton & Hove Albion, who had just won promotion to the First Division for the first time in their history. He scored seven goals in 72 games over the next two seasons.

Gregory’s most recent managerial adventure came in India. On 3 July 2017, Gregory signed as head coach of Chennaiyin in the Indian Super League. On March 17 2018, he led Chennaiyin to their second Indian Super League title by defeating Bengaluru 2-3 in the finals.

Dean Saunders

After turning professional on the year Villa became the Champions of Europe, Dean Saunders made his top flight debut two years after Swansea City’s first season as a Division One Club. Then in Division Two after suffering relegation, the Swans sold Saunders to Brighton on a free transfer in 1985.

The striker was a success at the Goldstone Ground, scoring 14 league goals in his first season. He scored six goals from 30 league games in 1986–87 before a £60,000 move took him to the First Division with Oxford United.

On 1 September 1992, Saunders became Aston Villa’s record signing in a £2.5 million deal that reunited him with former Liverpool players Steve Staunton and Ray Houghton at Villa Park. He managed six goals in his first four league games including two on his home debut against the club who had sold him; he also scored the winning goal at Anfield later in the season.

Developing a connection with Dalian Atkinson and Dwight Yorke, Saunders continued scoring as Villa challenged for the inaugural Premier League title but the team ultimately finished runners-up behind Manchester United.

Saunders and Villa did eventually claim revenge over United as a 3-1 win in a League Cup final ended Villa’s 12-year wait for a major trophy.

Tommy Elphick

Far from a legend, but a well-respected campaigner was Tommy Elphick. He joined the Villa as their captain in their first season outside the Premier League in 2016.

Recently, Elphick spoke highly of the club he left for Huddersfield Town last year.

Elphick spoke to Brighton’s official website: “Straight away I just knew deep inside me that I wanted to go there (Villa). I had played in the Bournemouth side that had technically relegated them and I looked around at Villa Park and thought that a club of that size shouldn’t be going down.

“It’s when you are there that you fully appreciate how big it is. Fans outside training ground every day waiting to get stuff signed. Everywhere you go, there are Villa fans, everywhere in the world, and to captain that club was such an honour and a magnificent experience.”

Elphick recalled the pressures of leading a Villa team out of their darkest moment in recent history.

“I was the guy brought in to shake up the dressing room and set standards and lead the club back to the Premier League and it didn’t start too promisingly, so yes, it brings its own pressures, said Elphick.

“But when things go well, there is no better experience in football than having the Holte End roaring you on. If you took me back & gave me the choice of staying in the Prem with Bournemouth or dropping down to captain Villa, I’d make the same choice again every time.”

After making his first strides in becoming a Villa hero, Jack Grealish caught Elphick’s eye just days after signing for the club: “The first day I saw Jack Grealish in training, I thought ‘Wow, this is someone special’. Yes, he can look very confident, shall we say, but you have to have that self-belief, and arrogance almost. And he has the ability to back it up.”

Villa signed the former Brighton player from Bournemouth, as he made the south coast switch in 2012. Although he was born and raised in Brighton, Elphick made ten more appearances for the Cherries - 142 in total where he achieved in promotion to the Premier League for the first time.

Steve Sidwell

Former Chelsea, Arsenal and Fulham midfielder Steve Sidwell had three stints under two different Brighton managers, Steve Coppell and Chris Hughton. Sidwell joined the Seagulls on loan in 2002, and returned on loan in 2016 before making a permanent switch after impressing in Hughton’s second year at the club.

Sidwell went on to retire at Brighton in 2018 after making a total of 62 appearances for the club. He made 45 appearances for Villa under Martin O’Neil after joining the club from Chelsea in 2008 for a fee in the region of £5 million. Sidwell made a difficult start to his career at B6 when he scored an own goal on his competitive debut for Villa on July 19 2008 in a 2–2 draw with Odense BK in the UEFA Intertoto Cup. He then picked up a calf injury in the return game which Villa won 1-0 to progress into the next round.

Sidwell’s fortunes would later turn around when on his return to action, he scored on his Premier League debut for Villa in an away win at Wigan in October 2008.

Sidwell’s most memorable moment in a Villa shirt came when he opened the scoring in a 3-2 win at Goodison Park, after just 34 seconds. An injury ravaged spell at Villa tarnished what could’ve been a good move for both Sidwell and Villa.