“Who would you have in a best Premier League XI never to play in the Champions League?”
Out of the blue, an old chum of FourFourTwo had sent us a poser which piqued our interest. An hour, and hundreds of further messages, later there was still no consensus. We gave up. FFT, however, is made of sterner stuff and also very bored. We pressed on, knowing Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp et al would be off-limits. But so were Tony Yeboah (one season for Hamburg), Sylvain Distin (10 games for Paris Saint-Germain) and even Dion Dublin, thanks to an 18-minute cameo for Manchester United against Galatasaray in 1993.
Some players were guaranteed, others less so. The search for a right-back proved especially problematic. But, here we are. The best the Premier League had to offer with no European Cup or Champions League games allowed, not even in qualifying (sorry Duncan Ferguson, Tim Cahill and assorted other Everton players).
The best Premier League XI never to play Champions League football:
GK: Neville Southall
Hod-carrier, odd-jobber, floor cleaner, binman – you name it, Big Nev probably did it before becoming one of the best keepers Britain has ever produced.
Still the last keeper to win the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award, the Everton stopper was unfortunate to be at his peak during English clubs’ European ban post-Heysel. Has recently reinvented himself as a prominent critic of Tory cuts on Twitter. When not giving away his account to random people and retweeting missing pets, that is.
RB: Stephen Carr
We’ll be honest, this was a real problem position. When you’re sat at home in your pants wondering aloud the relative merits of Steve Watson or Aaron Hughes to play on the right-hand side of your defence, you know you’re in trouble. Not least with Mrs FFT.
A Spurs mainstay for a decade before they got good, he moved to Newcastle in 2004, just as they got bad. His middle name is Babeson. Settle down at the back.
CB: Gareth Southgate
The England boss is just a nice man with the countenance and demeanour of someone who should have been born in St Albans, instead of burly Hertfordshire neighbour Watford.
Think hard enough and you can already hear the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough defender saying something pleasant about being quite happy with 32 UEFA Cup appearances. Ironically, Southgate’s laconic style was well-suited to European football.
CB: Paul McGrath
The Premier League’s first PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1992/93 barely trained because of a knee complaint so chronic that Alex Ferguson had offered the Ireland international a £100,000 retirement package three years earlier.
Instead, McGrath moved to Aston Villa and curbed his notorious drinking habits to prolong his career longer than anyone anticipated, but missed out on Manchester United’s Champions League sojourns as a result.
LB: Leighton Baines
We know, we couldn’t believe it, either. Baines has never even played a Champions League qualifier, despite Everton’s early-noughties dalliance with Europe’s elite.
One of the Premier League’s most consistent performers in both defence and attack, Bazza had the chance to follow David Moyes to Manchester United, and thus play in the Champions League, but turned his former manager down. He is, however, mates with the Arctic Monkeys and Miles Kane, so it’s probably not all bad.
MF: Matt Le Tissier
If you’re anything like FFT, Le God was the first player that came to mind for this team. Fond of a sausage and egg McMuffin on the way to training, the luxuriously talented playmaker spent his entire 16-year professional career at Southampton, despite offers from more illustrious teams.
“Our whole household was obsessed with him,” Xavi told FourFourTwo in 2016. “Every week, without fail, we’d watch Premier League highlights and Le Tissier would be scoring outrageous, sickening goals.”
No Champions League football, but a tournament legend's childhood hero – Le Tiss will probably take that. He’s captain. Obviously.
MF: Darren Anderton
Rarely has a nickname been so poorly attributed as ‘Sicknote’. Anderton made more than 600 professional appearances in an 18-year career for Portsmouth, Spurs and England.
It would’ve been even more had Anderton accepted Alex Ferguson’s overtures to join Manchester United in the summer of 1995, and the near-guarantee of Champions League football coming with it. As it was, the wide midfielder didn’t play a single minute of European football, with his prime coming when Spurs struggled for consistency. Criminally underrated.
MF: Clint Dempsey
There have been more naturally gifted footballers in Premier League history, but few were as effective as the American who scored 72 goals in 275 games in all competitions for Fulham and Tottenham.
A surprisingly competent rapper given he’s A) a footballer, and B) from Texas, the man known as Deuce (in no way related to Rob Schneider’s male gigolo) reached the Europa League final for the former, but missed Spurs' Champions League boat with the latter. One of the Prem’s few foreigners not to play at elite European level.
FW: Paolo Di Canio
Yes, really. Not for Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham or Charlton (obviously), nor for Celtic, Lazio, Milan or Juventus (almost impossibly). In fact, it’s almost as if he intentionally swerved the Champions League because of a long-held aversion to bombastic theme tunes and stars on footballs.
The Italian won the 1993 UEFA Cup, coming off the Juve bench in both legs of the final against Borussia Dortmund, and the 1995 UEFA Super Cup with Milan, but that Champions League appearance always eluded him.
FW: Ian Wright
Sold to West Ham the summer after winning the 1997/98 title with Arsenal, Wrighty never added to UEFA Cup, Super Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup appearances, having won the latter in 1994.
One of the early Premier League’s most feared marksmen, he also doubled as one of the finest peddlers of Chicken Tonight in the sauce’s glorious history. Once wore a pair of lens-less glasses on Match of the Day.
FW: Les Ferdinand
Sir Les – does anyone know where the honorary knighthood came from? – went through various striker stages in his Premier League career. Lightning youngster at QPR, lethal battering ram at Newcastle, less lethal battering at Spurs and ageing targetman (with moments of brilliance) at West Ham, Leicester and Bolton.
One UEFA Cup campaign for the Magpies was the extent of Ferdinand’s European exposure, which is surprising given that he’s the ninth-most prolific goalscorer in the Prem. "Hit Les!" (If you got that reference, congratulations… You’re old).
Now we bet you can't wait to see who we have on the bench...
Sub: David James
A pretty unfamiliar position for the Premier League’s fourth-highest appearance-maker, but Jamo would be ideal backup in the likely event that Big Nev stands as Labour MP for Knotty Ash.
UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup campaigns for Liverpool, Aston Villa and Portsmouth were as good as it got in Europe for the most famous person to come from Welwyn Garden City since Alesha Dixon. Or Lisa Snowdon.
Sub: Stan Collymore
At university, FFT used to spend more time than it cares to admit reading aloud sections of the chapter on dogging in Collymore’s 2004 autobiography Stan: Tackling My Demons to a Nottingham Forest-supporting friend. Such elite exploits, however, never saw daylight in the Champions League, despite UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup campaigns for Aston Villa and Liverpool. Loves Russia.
Sub: Trevor Sinclair
Every team needs a bit of flair coming off the bench to score overhead kicks from 25 yards. Sinclair had UEFA Cup sojourns for Manchester City and West Ham, but World Cup campaigns proved the limit of his international experience. Does anyone else think football needs more dreads these days?
Sub: Rory Delap
Bear with us. That throw-in is an utter menace, and one the greatest what-ifs in football was that the beautiful game’s most potent weapon was never delivered against Europe’s best. There’s no better game-changer. The YouTube video of Delap’s throw-ins set to Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler is proof of what might have been.
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