Note: Players from across the UK and the Republic of Ireland count as homegrown here. Many individuals from those national sides came through academies at English league clubs, so it didn’t feel right to include them. Sorry Gareth. Sorry Roy. Sorry everybody.
Arsenal: Thierry Henry
A romantic might pick Dennis Bergkamp. Yet while the stylish Dutch master was easily the best player in England for a season during 1997/98, Henry had a claim to that title for five years or more.
Signed from Juventus in 1999, Henry became Arsenal’s all-time top scorer in less than seven seasons. Of the players who’ve scored 100 Premier League goals, only Sergio Aguero (0.69 goals per game) can better Henry’s 0.68. And the French No.14 was so much more than a penalty box predator, as his assist record shows.
Yet reducing Henry to numbers is to miss the magic. He would beat defenders with blistering pace, confound them with tricks and, just occasionally, do something nobody else would even dream of doing. A dazzling player who made Match of the Day must-see TV all on his own.
Bournemouth: Joshua King
It’s the Norway international with the world’s most English name! Bournemouth first reached England’s top tier in 2015, so – with due respect to Max Gradel’s silky skills – it’s their current squad that contains the cream of the club’s overseas talent.
King has been key to Bournemouth’s modern success, the 26-year-old having played 100+ Premier League games and scored 36 goals despite not always playing in his preferred centre-forward position. In particular, his 16 league goals in 2016/17 led to the club’s best-ever finish of ninth.
King’s main challenger as top foreign Cherry is a younger team-mate. Nathan Ake has only been a full-time Bournemouth employee since June 2017, but the Dutch centre-back has been imperious. How long Bournemouth can keep him is another matter.
Others have boasted more elan. Anthony Knockaert shone in Brighton’s 2016/17 promotion season, Pascal Gross had a superb debut last term, while Valencia legend Vicente showed flashes of his elite ability at the end of his career from 2011 to 2013.
Yet Bruno stands above them all. Arriving in 2012 on a free transfer, few predicted that the Catalan right-back would not only lead Brighton into the Premier League, but still be bearding around in England’s top tier in 2018 at the age of 38.
Bruno is neither quick nor physically imposing, but his reading of the game and technical ability remain undiminished. Key to Brighton’s promotion to the Prem, the club captain has racked up over 200 appearances for the Seagulls and he isn’t done yet. A club legend.
Burnley: Johann Berg Gudmundsson
Slim pickings from a side that’s built its success on a largely-British core. Especially as selecting the Bath-born 'Austrian' Ashley Barnes seems like a bit of a cheat.
The ‘Beast of Burnley’ Brian Jensen is a better shout. The Danish keeper features in over 300 games for Clarets and played in the 2009 play-off final that earned Burnley promotion to the Premier League. However, he wasn’t always a wholly convincing first choice.
Instead, let’s go with the first Burnley player to feature in a World Cup since 1982. Iceland winger Gudmundsson has been a first-team fixture since his 2016 arrival and contributed directly to 10 league goals (eight assists, two goals) in last season’s impressive seventh-place finish. Having just turned 28, Gudmundsson has plenty of time to cement his place as Burnley’s best import.
Cardiff: Aron Gunnarsson
If only English players counted. As it is, Cardiff have had a UK base to their modern successes and – notwithstanding the colossal displays of Ivory Coast defender Sol Bamba as the club were promoted last season – picking an all-time great foreigner is tricky.
Iceland captain Gunnarsson comes close, though. He has racked up 260 appearances for the Bluebirds since arriving in 2011 as an all-action midfielder, and scored 13 goals in his first two seasons.
Age and injuries have limited his game over time, but he won the club’s player of the season award in 2016/17 thanks to his performances as a midfield destroyer. Some Cardiff fans scratched their heads when the 29-year-old got a new one-year deal this summer, but his fine display in Cardiff’s 4-2 win over Fulham this season show there’s life in the old Iceman yet.
Chelsea: Didier Drogba
An impressive list of contenders for the Blues. In particular, Italian genius Gianfranco Zola was arguably Chelsea’s best ever player until the Blues reached unprecedented success built around a spine of Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and, of course, Drogba.
The Ivory Coast striker reinvented the centre-forward position in the Premier League. He was a fast, mobile striker who could hold the ball up, bully defenders in the air and be a prolific goalscorer. His 164 Chelsea goals don’t tell the full story, as so many of them came in big games: four in FA Cup finals, three in League Cup finals, plus that late equaliser in the 2012 Champions League Final.
Frankly, the leading contender to supplant Drogba is currently excelling in Chelsea’s No.10 shirt. Whether Eden Hazard stays around long to take top spot is another matter.
Crystal Palace: Attilio Lombardo
Note: we’re not counting Wilfried Zaha here. The 25-year-old may be an Ivory Coast international, but he also has two England caps and, as any Palace fan will tell you, the academy graduate is very much one of their own.
So it’s either a club stalwart (Julian Speroni, who’s racked up over 400 appearances) or someone who shone briefly but brilliantly. Step forward ‘The Bald Eagle’, an Italy international who arrived from Juventus in 1997 and performed so superbly, he was (bizarrely) briefly installed as manager.
Fast, industrious with skill and an end product, the winger nearly kept the club in Premier League single-handedly. Palace were 10th when Lombardo got injured in 1997/98; bottom by the time he came back. He just failed to keep them up after his return, but stayed on in the second tier until Palace sold him to Lazio to cut their wage bill. He played just 49 games for the club, but they were 49 games of magic.
Everton: Tim Cahill
Some players just seem to ‘fit’ a team’s shirt; to quickly become part of the fabric of a club. Even when they originally come from half the world away.
Everton have had more talented foreign stars than Tim Cahill. Andrei Kanchelskis had one scintillating season, Mikel Arteta spent seven years being elegant and effective in midfield, while Romelu Lukaku’s 87 goals in 166 games speak for themselves.
Yet Cahill became synonymous with Everton during his eight-year spell. The goals helped: 68 for the leaping midfielder, including 12 in his first season and five against Liverpool (a post-war Everton record). Each goal was gleefully celebrated by a Sydney-born part-Samoan who loved the Toffees like a blue-blooded Merseysider.
Fulham: Clint Dempsey
Frankly, we’d put 'Deuce' top of Fulham’s pile just because of that awesome freestyle rap on Setanta TV (hard to imagine Brede Hangeland or Edwin van der Sar spitting rhymes like that). Fortunately, his performances alone do enough to justify his place.
Bought for £2m in January 2007, Dempsey’s first goal for the club – a May winner against Liverpool – effectively staved off relegation for the Cottagers. He’d go on to take his tally to 60 Fulham goals; most memorably of all, that spectacular lob against Juventus on the way to the 2010 UEFA Cup Final.
Dempsey’s form peaked in the following two years, and after a 23-goal season in 2011/12, Tottenham lured him away. While it’s his US team-mate Brian McBride who has a bar named after him at Craven Cottage, it was Dempsey who best personified a memorable run of seasons in Fulham’s modern history.
Huddersfield: Christopher Schindler
Bonus fact: Huddersfield have a World Cup winner in their squad. It’s Erik Durm! But the 2018 arrival is not a contender for a prize which goes down to one of two men: Durm’s fellow German defender Christopher Schindler or Australia’s ‘pasty Pirlo’ Aaron Mooy.
Both players were absolutely crucial to Huddersfield’s unlikely promotion to the Premier League in 2017, and their equally against-all-odds survival last season. One is a classy, tempo-setting playmaker; the other a versatile defender who’s good in the air and mobile on the deck.
Frankly, it’s a coin toss, but let’s go with Schindler for being the man whose play-off spot-kick sent Huddersfield into the Premier League. Germans, penalty shootouts, and all that.
Leicester: Riyad Mahrez
With due respect to loyal servant Kasper Schmeichel, one-season wonder N’Golo Kante and all of the overseas talent that was part of Leicester’s 2015/16 miracle, this is an easy pick.
On pure ability, Algerian winger Mahrez might be Leicester’s greatest ever player full stop. After arriving from Le Havre in 2014, he spent four-and-a-half seasons assailing defences with his dribbling skills, incisive passing and deadly finishing. That peaked in ‘15/16, when he scored 18 goals and won the PFA Player of the Year award, ending the year seventh in the Ballon d’Or standings.
Mahrez agitated for a move in the two seasons afterwards, but still managed to score double figures in both. This summer, Manchester City made him their £60m record signing. Frankly, if he’s good enough for Pep Guardiola, he’s good enough for us.
Liverpool: Luis Suarez
He only spent three-and-a-half seasons at Liverpool. Yet on pure talent, as well as raw tenacity, Anfield has seen few better players than the controversial Uruguayan.
When he arrived from Ajax for £22.8m in 2011, Suarez’s ability was obvious, but his finishing didn’t always match his all-round play. Then it caught up, and all hell came with him. In 2012/13 and 2013/14 Suarez produced two 30-goal seasons and, in the latter, so nearly hauled Brendan Rodgers’ side to the league title.
His four-goal trouncing of Norwich, in particular, may be the most jaw-dropping one-match display that England’s top tier has seen in modern times. Suarez joined Barcelona for £65m in 2014, but the goodwill he departed with – around Anfield, at least – was testament to his impact.
Manchester City: David Silva
How can you be a club’s all-time top scorer – as well as a last-minute, title-winning hero – and only be second here? Of all City’s modern greats, from long-serving Vincent Kompany to cake-lusting Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero is closest to top spot.
Yet it's Silva who gets our gold medal. The 125-cap Spain international has purred in City’s midfield for nine seasons, racking up 50 goals and 77 assists in the Premier League alone. But numbers never show his true value.
A versatile playmaker of vision and flair, Silva has a work ethic and a consistency not always associated with those qualities. Always finding space, constantly using the ball cleverly, Silva is a master of the simple things – and of the complex things too. He cost £25m in 2010 but his value on the pitch, and as a softly-spoken hero among City supporters, is insurmountable.
Manchester United: Cristiano Ronaldo
As with Arsenal, there’s a tempting romantic choice here. Eric Cantona’s arrival in 1992 kick-started Manchester United’s modern success, bringing attitude and ability to end Manchester United’s 26-year drought and claiming four titles in five seasons.
Yet if we’re talking ‘best’, one player stands out. Cristiano Ronaldo spent his first three seasons at Manchester United as a skilful frustration. For the next three he was unstoppable, winning a hat-trick of league titles, the 2008 Champions League and becoming the first United player since the 1960s to claim the Ballon d’Or.
He left for Real Madrid in 2009, where the numbers became mind-blowing, but the most enjoyable version of Ronaldo is still the Old Trafford one. For three seasons he’d drop back, as keen to bewitch defenders – or spank one in from an improbable distance – as he was to arrive and finish in the box. Simply, a sensation.
Newcastle: Nobby Solano
Who doesn’t love a stylish, trumpet-playing Peruvian winger who succeeds in two separate spells at your team? Every club has one of those in their past, surely.
Solano, signed from Boca Juniors in 1998, isn’t a unanimous choice. Not when Argentine international centre-back Fabricio Coloccini gave eight seasons of service, while David Ginola glittered for two years in Newcastle’s superior 'entertainers' side.
Yet Solano gave more of himself to the Toon. Over 315 games, he scored 48 goals and was a constant menace with his technical trickery and dead-ball expertise. He was also one of those flair players unafraid to put a shift in, as he demonstrated when filling in at right-back during his second run at the club from 2005 to 2007.
Southampton: Marian Pahars
Southampton have a rich heritage of overseas defenders becoming cult heroes. From Claus Lundekvam, Ken Monkou and Michael ‘Killer’ Svensson, back to mythical Yugoslavian full-back Ivan Golac and – in modern times – Portugal international Jose Fonte.
But do any of those have a nickname as incredible as ‘The Latvian Michael Owen’? No. Frankly, it would be weird if they did. But Pahars was more than just a one-line wonder. Just months after joining the club in 1999, he started a must-win season finale against Everton. The result? Pahars scored both in a 2-0 win to complete an unlikely relegation escape.
He scored 36 Premier League goals across the next three seasons; not quite Owen-esque but vital for a club battling the drop. Plus his pace and imagination made him a constant threat to opponents, until various injuries spoiled the end of his Saints run. By that point, he’d repaid his £800k fee many times over.
Tottenham: Ossie Ardiles
Spurs are a rare club whose top foreign star doesn’t come via the influx of international talent in the Premier League era. It’s not like they don’t boast contenders. Jurgen Klinsmann, David Ginola, Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric and Christian Eriksen have all excelled in a Lilywhite shirt.
Before them all came Ardiles. A pioneer who arrived as an Argentina World Cup winner in 1978, the 5ft 6in midfielder and his amigo Ricky Villa were exotic new additions to the old First Division. Despite playing in a physical new league, Ardiles’s vision set the tone for his club from the start.
He stayed at Tottenham for 10 seasons (interrupted only by a short loan at PSG due to the Falklands War), winning the FA Cup, UEFA Cup and having single – 1981’s Ossie’s Dream – released in his honour. That settles it. Until Spurs release the hit Fortunate Son (Heung-min) in 2019, Ossie retains top spot.
Watford: Heidar Helguson
Given the strong displays of the modern, multinational Watford, this accolade could well be up for grabs in the coming years. We’re looking at you Abdoulaye Doucoure and Roberto Pereyra, providing you don’t break Hornets’ hearts (like that rogue Richarlison).
For now, let’s stick with a player whose legacy is set. Heidar Helguson was signed by Graham Taylor for £1.5m in January 2000 and got off to a strong home start by scoring against Liverpool. The Icelandic striker, formidable in the air despite standing at 5ft 10in, scored six goals in a shortened Premier League season but was unable to keep the club up.
Injuries marked his early years in the second tier, but by 2004/05 he was nabbing 20 goals as well as the club’s player of the season award. Premier League Fulham snapped him, but Helguson’s cult hero status was sealed by a return on loan in 2009, and a brace on his second debut against Leicester. He eventually left the club having boosted his tally to 76 strikes.
West Ham: Paolo Di Canio
Did you even have to ask? Ludek Miklosko remains a cult figure, Dimitri Payet had one breathtaking season, but it’s daylight between a certain maverick Italian and the rest. Paolo Di Canio’s actions and views may divide opinion, but his talent does not.
West Ham saw the best of him. A player who Eric Cantona would probably describe as ‘a bit too hot-headed’, Di Canio only arrived at Upton Park in 1999 as Sheffield Wednesday wanted rid of a player who’d shoved over referee Paul Alcock. The £1.5m fee proved a bargain.
Di Canio brought fire, flair and goals of jaw-dropping quality, including thatscissor-kick volley against Wimbledon. It got to the point that Alex Ferguson tried to sign the thirtysomething for Manchester United. It all ended in tears in 2002/03: a fallout with manager Glenn Roeder followed by West Ham’s relegation, but not before Di Canio scored goals that so nearly kept the club up.
Wolves: Ruben Neves
Is it cheeky to suggest super-agent Jorge Mendes deserves this spot? No, the logical choice is someone who’s actually played 100+ games for the club; someone such as Bakary Sako, the magical Mali winger who scored double figures in three successive seasons.
But to hell with logic. Wolves have never had an overseas contingent this gifted, from Willy Boly at the back to Helder Costa and Joao Moutinho in midfield. Then there’s Neves. The 21-year-old had one of the best Wolves seasons in living memory as he blitzed the Championship in 2017/18 with his laser-guided passing and long-range shooting.
The Portugal international has played a different role than pure playmaker in the Premier League, showing he has the legs to eat up ground as well. But while he’s impressed, you still get the feeling that the best is yet to come from a player who should be even more spectacular in his next 50-odd games than he’s been in his first 52 for Wolves.
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