Best Premier League players EVER: 100 greatest footballers in England's top flight since 1992
After almost three decades of thrills and spills, FourFourTwo ranks the ultimate icons who defined a generation
It's given us Sir Alex Ferguson, Kevin Keegan and Arsene Wenger. It's given us mayhem, magic and Mike Dean. It's given us Centurions, Invincibles and Treble winners.
There's no division in football quite like the Premier League, where the geniuses and madmen of the game flock to write their name in history. For 28 years, we've witnessed incredible sights - and some of the greatest players to ever live.
Here at FourFourTwo, we've decided to rank the top 100 footballers to appear in the Premier League - that's England's top tier since 1992 - based on their impact. That's a combination of their ability, status and the moments they gave us over the years.
Do you agree with our list? Passionately disagree? Who should be at number 1? Make sure to let us know @FourFourTwo (opens in new tab)!
This list first appeared in the February 2021 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now and get every mag delivered to your door. (opens in new tab)
100. Peter Crouch
Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Tottenham Hotspur, Stoke City, Burnley
Crouch will always remain one of the Premier League’s most surreal players. At 6ft 7in tall and with an impressive goal return, while he appeared for the likes of Aston Villa and Southampton early on in his career, not even Liverpool or Tottenham could resist the temptation of Crouch’s abilities. It is still incredible how someone so tall could score the countless number of bicycle kicks the England international managed to pull off.
HIGHLIGHT Right foot, left foot, header: Crouch’s perfect hat-trick at Anfield – the only treble in his career – guided Liverpool to a 4-1 win over Arsenal in March 2007.
99. Andrei Kanchelskis
Manchester United, Everton, Manchester City, Southampton
Alex Ferguson’s love of fast and skilful wingers can be traced back to Kanchelskis’ £650,000 arrival from Shakhtar Donetsk. The nimble Russian helped United secure back-to-back Premier League titles from 1993, but couldn’t prevent a high-profile spat with his boss. Instead, he became a cult hero at Everton before shorter stints at Manchester City and Southampton.
HIGHLIGHT A hat-trick against Man City in November 1994 and double for the Toffees at Anfield a year later. Andrei liked a derby.
98. Brad Friedel
Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur
The American stopper holds the record for the most consecutive Premier League appearances. Between August 2004 and October 2012, Friedel played 310 straight matches – comprising eight years, six managers and three clubs. A fine leader, communicator and goalkeeper.
HIGHLIGHT Friedel bagged a 90th-minute equaliser for Blackburn against Charlton Athletic in February 2004... only for the Addicks to net an even later winner to take the spoils 3-2.
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97. Pepe Reina
Liverpool, Aston Villa
Hailed as “the best keeper in Spain” by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez upon his 2005 arrival from Villarreal, Reina’s first task was to oust Champions League final legend Jerzy Dudek. It wasn’t even a fight: Reina immediately grabbed the No.1 shirt, racking up 134 clean sheets in 285 Premier League appearances for the Reds – earning him the Golden Glove award in three consecutive campaigns.
HIGHLIGHT Breaking Liverpool’s record of consecutive Premier League clean sheets (eight) during his first, rock-solid season.
96. Steve Bruce
Bruce’s contributions to early-90s Manchester United deserve much greater credit. As one half of a formidable defensive partnership with Gary Pallister, the affable Northumbrian helped United win three of the opening four Premier Leagues – the first as skipper, via one almighty intervention...
HIGHLIGHT Brucie’s brace – superb headers in the 86th and 96th minutes – gave United a fabled 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993. Fergie’s side never looked back, sealing the title with two matches to spare.
95. Emile Heskey
Leicester City, Liverpool, Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa
Heskey’s 110 Premier League goals place him 23rd in the all-time scoring chart, but the Leicester man was always valued for more than his bare numbers. His total may have been helped by longevity over innate scoring talent – only six players have exceeded Heskey’s 516 top-flight appearances – but he earned every single strike through his tireless work ethic and selfless style.
“Heskey may be heavily criticised by some English fans, but I don’t see it like that,” noted former FIFA World Player of the Year Rivaldo in 2002. “I played against him a couple of times for Barcelona and realised what a quality player he is. If you ask me which Englishman I think would be able to cope with playing in my team, Brazil, I say Heskey.”
HIGHLIGHT A cracker against Coventry for Leicester in November 1999 was the very best of Heskey: terrific chest control, then a brilliant finish moving away from goal.
94. Jamie Carragher
The one-club man willingly played anywhere he was needed in his early Reds career, moving to a permanent home at centre-back under Rafael Benitez. His strong leadership made him an Anfield pillar for 17 years. “Carragher was the most difficult opponent in terms of aggression,” revealed Didier Drogba.
HIGHLIGHT An 18-year-old Carra slotted into midfield on his full Liverpool debut at home to Aston Villa in January 1997 – and headed the opening goal in a 3-0 victory.
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93. James Milner
Leeds United, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Liverpool
Milner has enjoyed the career of a dozen different players. He’s been the Premier League’s youngest-ever scorer, a touchline-hugging wideman under Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle, and a goal-getter with Aston Villa. Now 35, the shapeshifting Yorkshireman has settled into his final position as Liverpool’s Mr Reliable in midfield... or is that right-back? A colossus.
HIGHLIGHT Sure, Millie’s a three-time title winner, but that goal for Leeds in 2002 – aged 16 years, 356 days – takes some beating.
92. Kasper Schmeichel
Manchester City, Leicester City
Being the son of a legend didn’t give Schmeichel much of a leg-up. He had to work his way up off the Manchester City bench, eventually reaching the Premier League with Leicester in 2014. Then he helped the Foxes maintain their top-flight status before the natural conclusion of, er, winning the bloody thing. The 34-year-old has rarely put a glove wrong since and is already a Leicester icon.
HIGHLIGHT Five straight clean sheets near the end of 2015/16, when everybody began to believe in the impossible.
91. Dion Dublin
Manchester United, Coventry City, Aston Villa
Dublin achieved something deep with each passing Premier League campaign. The talisman took on cult status in the ’90s, with his long-legged stride, rocket shot and infectious energy endearing him to those who watched on. If that’s not enough, Dublin once lived with actor Jason Statham, went on to invent his own percussion instrument (The Dube) and now successfully presents Homes Under the Hammer. Dion, we salute you.
HIGHLIGHT An explosive hat-trick for Coventry against Sheffield Wednesday in December 1995, coming during a purple patch where Dublin began to assert himself as one of the premier marksmen in English football.
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90. Gilberto Silva
Arsene Wenger built a cathedral of beautiful football at Arsenal, with silky attacking players his architects. Behind them, though, sat Gilberto: the ‘invisible wall’ who swept up, battled hard and helped to provide an artistic Gunners side with a tough shell. His understated influence underpinned Arsenal: the Invincibles owed their creativity to the ball-winner who let them flourish.
HIGHLIGHT Going unbeaten in 2003/04 was a team effort, but two goals to win the first North London derby at the Emirates Stadium in December 2006 were all Gilberto’s.
89. Steve McManaman
Liverpool, Manchester City
Happy birthday, Steve McManaman!https://t.co/SUUJQDiprjFebruary 11, 2016
Rarely is a side’s most talented player also its most hard-working – McManaman was the exception. He almost scorched the Anfield turf with his fierce running, yet so much of the Reds’ play went through him. He became El Macca when departing for Real Madrid in 1999, but epitomised everything positive about ’90s Liverpool with his flair and determination.
HIGHLIGHT A looping corker against Arsenal in November 1997 – one of his 11 goals that season – summed up the Scouser’s cocksure confidence. Great hair, too.
The 35-year-old has sharpened his positional sense, passing and tactical awareness to become indispensable for Manchester City. “Everything we’ve done wouldn’t have been possible without him,” Pep Guardiola hummed of the Brazilian utility man ahead of 2017/18 glory.
HIGHLIGHT City pinched the 2018/19 title by just a point thanks to their humdinger of a win over Liverpool in January. Fernandinho, recently back from injury, was outstanding in a 2-1 classic, won by the barest of margins.
87. Kevin Phillips
Sunderland, Southampton, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Crystal Palace
As a youngster with Southampton, Phillips would clean Alan Shearer’s boots. By 2000, the strike pair were on either side of the Sunderland-Newcastle divide and Phillips was
pipping his senior to the Premier League Golden Boot. In fact, Phillips outscored anyone in Europe in his first top-flight season, as the Black Cats finished seventh. He is the only Englishman to win the European Golden Shoe.
Southampton pounced to bring him back to the south coast for £3.25m, where he forged a fine partnership with James Beattie. When Beattie moved to Everton, Phillips struggled without a pacy forward and was again relegated in 2004/05. The eight-cap England man had spells with Aston Villa and Birmingham, and by late 2013 was still coming off the bench for Crystal Palace at 40, before finally heading back to the Championship.
HIGHLIGHT A sumptuous drive in that 4-1 win against Chelsea. “It was a 25-yard dipping volley then,” smiled Phillips. “It’s [become] a 40-yard volley.” It was brilliant.
86. Stan Collymore
Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Leicester City, Bradford City
The 1994/95 Stan was a whirlwind of athleticism and lethal class. Forest finished third upon their return to the big time, qualifying for the UEFA Cup thanks to their unplayable frontman. Fans had enjoyed Teddy Sheringham and Nigel Clough before that, but neither thrilled like a peak Collymore. On the pitch, there wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
HIGHLIGHT Look no further than Newcastle. After teeing up Fowler for the first goal, Collymore hit two of his own, the second, a 92nd-minute jackhammer that sent Kevin Keegan sinking to the advertising boards. Pure theatre.
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85. Romelu Lukaku
Chelsea, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, Manchester United
The master of the one-on-one - @RomeluLukaku9 @ManUtd #BELTUN #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/BdTScVVebrJune 23, 2018
Future historians may struggle to summarise Lukaku’s career. His Old Trafford tenure was largely unhappy, his stints at both Everton and West Brom spectacular. Ultimately, the Belgian’s record – 113 goals in 252 appearances – stands up for itself. Lukaku remains the youngest ever foreign player to hit a ton of Premier League goals, aged just 24.
HIGHLIGHT On as a sub in Alex Ferguson’s last match as United gaffer, Rom’s perfect hat-trick helped West Brom to a 5-5 draw.
84. Marc Overmars
The jet-propelled Dutchman took time to catch alight after joining from Ajax in the summer of 1997, but was crucial to Arsenal’s subsequent Double-winning campaign. The winger was good for big goals on the biggest occasions, including a brace as Arsene Wenger’s outfit wrapped up the title against Everton.
HIGHLIGHT His slotted finish at Old Trafford in March 1998 was essential to the Gunners overturning a nine-point (and three-match) deficit to Manchester United before kick-off.
Juninho loved Boro so much he signed for them three times: initially as a fancy new arrival from Brazil in October 1995, then again in 1999 and 2002. His star may have diminished with each return, but the schemer’s twinkle-toed displays at the tip of Bryan Robson’s midfield in his first spell secure his standing as one of British football’s most-loved imports.
HIGHLIGHT In a Boro career of near misses, finishing as runner-up to Gianfranco Zola for the FWA Player of the Year award in 1996/97 was an indication of Juninho’s class.
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82. Tim Cahill
Cahill is one of the all-time great Premier League bargains. For £1.5m in 2004, Everton bagged a player who would decorate matches with aerial brilliance and corner flag punishment for eight campaigns. The Aussie averaged a goal every four games across 226 league appearances and is loved at Goodison Park.
HIGHLIGHT No post-war Everton player has scored more Merseyside derby league goals (five). A late Anfield strike in January 2009 snaffled a draw, en route to finishing fifth.
81. David Batty
Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United
As a teenager at Elland Road, Batty was made to drink sherry and raw egg by Billy Bremner, the legendary midfield general who Leeds fans hoped he would emulate. He was similarly combative: the local boy’s idea of injecting fun into the 1992 pre-season Makita Tournament involved hacking Roberto Mancini’s riled Sampdoria team to bits, with a mischievous grin.
Batty went on to establish a steely midfield partnership at Blackburn with Tim Sherwood as they finished second in 1993/94, but then suffered a broken foot which ruled him out for the majority of their golden campaign a year later. The midfielder refused his winners’ medal, having only featured five times. Newcastle followed before a triumphant return to Leeds but Batty wasn’t like other players. Football was his job. Ultimately, the midfielder was just another bloke with a life outside work – and loved for it.
HIGHLIGHT Re-signing for his hometown team in 1998, greeted by “Batty’s coming home” from the stands.
80. Robbie Keane
Coventry City, Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, West Ham United, Aston Villa
Keane is remembered for his trademark cartwheel following 126 Premier League goals, including six straight seasons of double-digit returns in his first Spurs spell. As Edgar Davids found out, he was also hard as nails. “He went bang – one punch, gone,” said ex-Tottenham team-mate Jamie O’Hara of one training ground fracas. “Davids picked himself up and walked off.”
HIGHLIGHT Britain’s most expensive teen in 1999 tied Derby’s Jacob Laursen up in knots during a superb two-goal debut for Coventry.
79. Freddie Ljungberg
Arsenal, West Ham United
While Robert Pires was cultured and delicate down the left flank for Arsenal, there was nothing subtle about Ljungberg. The Swede was fearless, feisty and would frequently slip past centre-backs unnoticed to grab big goals. A generation of children dyed their hair pink thanks to Freddie – the Gunners’ action man.
HIGHLIGHT Injury to Pires forced Ljungberg to the left in 2001/02’s run-in, but he popped up with six goals and helped to create Sylvain Wiltord’s strike to win the title at Old Trafford.
78. Roberto Firmino
The Brazilian was once a promising, yet inconsistent attacking midfielder – then perfected the false nine role under manager Jurgen Klopp. Now, his vision and positional nomadism are the template for how traditional forwards – even Harry Kane – can improve their skill set.
“I would feel really embarrassed if I had to mention all the qualities of Bobby Firmino,” tooted Klopp in November.
HIGHLIGHT Three assists for three different players as Liverpool trounced Southampton 4-0 in February 2020 was Firmino at his finest.
77. Michael Essien
Whether Essien was bludgeoning footballs from 30 yards, charging through a sea of midfield legs or crunching into tackles, he did everything with the utmost commitment. The Ghanaian could also read a game like few others, and was a linchpin in eight seasons at Stamford Bridge for Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.
HIGHLIGHT Essien’s stonker against Arsenal in December 2006 combined brawn with beauty; a glorious outside-of-the-boot strike which almost decapitated Didier Drogba.
76. Gary Speed
Leeds United, Everton, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers
The late Gary Speed was a consistent and reliable midfielder during his long and established career in the Premier League. An important player for Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton during his time in England’s top-flight, Speed was also a natural-born leader and inspirational figure in football. The fact he played top-level football in a fast-paced league well into his thirties showed his strong levels of fitness and professionalism. A well-respected member of the Premier League who is missed by the football community.
HIGHLIGHT In November 1996, Everton beat Southampton 7–1 at Goodison Park with Speed scoring the only hat-trick of his career. He was simply unstoppable, that day, and became Everton's player of the year that season.
75. Jurgen Klinsmann
In an Ossie Ardiles team built to score, Klinsmann thrived. “It wasn’t ridiculous at all playing with five attacking players,” he insisted to FFT. “I had a lot of fun, and I still think that had we been more consistent defensively, and not made so many individual mistakes at the back, we could have played that system.”
HIGHLIGHT Naturally, he opened with a goal on his Premier League debut: a trademark thumping header at Hillsborough, followed by his now-legendary diving celebration.
74. Patrice Evra
Manchester United, West Ham United
Alex Ferguson likened finding a decent full-back to “searching for a rare bird” in his 2013 autobiography. In Evra, he found what he was looking for. “He was quick, had superb technique and a strong personality,” wrote Fergie. United paid Monaco just £5.5m for the Frenchman in 2006, receiving more than eight years of fantastic service in return.
HIGHLIGHT It takes strength to recover from being subbed at half-time on your debut. He hung on, delivering a terrific goal-and-assist display against Everton later that year.
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73. Sami Hyypia
The £2.6m arrival from Dutch outfit Willem II in 1999 was no headline-maker. Yet the centre-back soon transformed Gerard Houllier’s Merseysiders into a different beast; from leaking 49 goals in 1998/99, the Reds conceded only 30 in two of the next three league campaigns. “He was so consistent, it was a shock if he had a bad game,” Jamie Carragher told FFT.
HIGHLIGHT The Kop’s mosaic tribute for the Finn’s final Liverpool match in May 2009 was a fitting way to honour him.
72. David De Gea
Schalke giant Manuel Neuer had been sought by Alex Ferguson in 2011, but United’s goalkeeping coach Eric Steele believed the younger De Gea was a sounder option.
“In three years, he’ll be better,” stated Steele. After a wobbly start, De Gea grew into a world-class stopper who bailed an ailing Red Devils side out for years, and was their player of the season in four of the five campaigns from 2013/14.
HIGHLIGHT An unbeatable, 14-save display against Arsenal in 2017 helped United pinch a 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium.
71. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
Leeds United, Chelsea, Middlesborugh, Charlton Athletic
After netting 24 goals for Boavista in 1996-97, Dutch ball-batterer Hasselbaink picked Leeds ahead of Werder Bremen – then plundered 34 goals over two Premier League seasons. After leaving for a prolific year at Atletico Madrid, Chelsea paid £15m for him in 2000, and were rewarded by back-to-back scoring seasons of 23.
HIGHLIGHT A thunderbolt at Old Trafford in 2000 was one of numerous Jimmy specials, opening the scoring in a see-saw 3-3 draw.
70. Emmanuel Petit
Where Patrick Vieira was fire and might, Petit may be reflected on as the cooler antithesis. In reality, the sultry Frenchman embodied Arsenal’s late-90s passion, and played with similar bite to his midfield partner. ‘Manny Small’ helped to deliver Wenger’s first Double, and later moved to Stamford Bridge via one unhappy season at Barcelona.
HIGHLIGHT As Arsenal gunned towards the finish line in 1998, Petit’s terrific goal decided a tight April encounter against Derby which set up their imminent trophy lift at Highbury.
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69. Luka Modric
Harry Redknapp telling his players to “just give the ball to Luka” might have appeared a rudimentary approach – but watching the Croatian, it didn’t take a genius to understand why. Although he initially struggled, Modric’s mastery of the ball soon came to the fore over four brilliant seasons at White Hart Lane.
HIGHLIGHT In an outstanding 2010/11, he was otherworldly in a goalless draw against Manchester United; later, Fergie would name him his player of the season.
68. Jermain Defoe
West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Bournemouth
Got to be Jermain Defoe's best ever #PL goal...?#GoalOfTheDay pic.twitter.com/ra69KQ3iRODecember 9, 2018
Only seven men have scored more Premier League goals than Defoe, who struck 162 times for five teams. The Londoner carved out a career of expertly hanging on defenders’ shoulders, posting 10 double-digit top-flight seasons in a streak of healthy goal-getting. Anyone who can net 15 goals in back-to-back campaigns for Sunderland deserves a nod.
HIGHLIGHT Five second-half goals in a 9-1 Tottenham drubbing of Wigan had Redknapp hailing Defoe as the best finisher in England.
67. Carlos Tevez
West Ham United, Manchester United, Manchester City
At first, the circus of Tevez’s disputed move to West Ham seemed silly – his first 16 league games passed without a goal, as the Hammers looked doomed. Then it all changed – seven strikes in the run-in saved the Londoners, before the Argentine proved his class in title triumphs at both Manchester clubs. Life was rarely quiet.
HIGHLIGHT With West Ham requiring a win on the final day of 2006/07 at Old Trafford, Super Tev stepped up, netting the only goal.
66. Fernando Torres
When Rafael Benitez managed to convince La Liga’s hottest prospect to swap sunny Spain for the watercolour sprawl of English football, pressure for a speedy start was on but the Spaniard was quick to deliver. He set a new record as the most prolific foreigner in a debut season, usurping Ruud van Nistelrooy’s 23-goal collection of six campaigns earlier with a 24th on the final day of 2007/08.
After cementing himself as a Kop hero, he couldn’t quite reach the same heights at Stamford Bridge: Torres’ Premier League story was not one of longevity, then, but had a much shorter fuse. The fireworks, while brief, were also quite brilliant.
HIGHLIGHT Liverpool hammered Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford in March 2009, with Torres using Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as his playthings. The Spaniard’s goal that afternoon is always his go-to highlight.
65. Matt Le Tissier
He was certainly the best penalty taker in the history of the Premier League – Mark Crossley’s famous save in March 1993 gave Le Tissier a meagre 98 per cent success rate across his career – and arguably the foremost bottom-half player in the rebranded division. Criminally, the Guernsey demigod never finished above 10th in the Prem.
But perhaps no other player had ever assembled such a collection of goals; a compendium of free-kicks, volleys and inch-perfect long-range efforts that were necessary to prevent him from doing any more running. “Outrageous, sickening goals,” eulogised Barcelona idol Xavi, who developed an obsession with Le Tissier.
HIGHLIGHT That final game at The Dell, Southampton’s home for 103 years. Its greatest player came on with 16 minutes left against Arsenal; even by his standards, the 32-year-old Le Tissier looked out of shape. But when the ball fell his way, he swivelled to dispatch a magnificent left-footed half-volley. It proved his last goal, as well as the ground’s.
64. Dimitar Berbatov
Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Fulham
On a field of athletes, Berba invariably looked the artist: operating in his world, at his speed, a man apart from everyone else. There were occasions when the Bulgarian mooched around, his sleeves pulled over his hands like a student who had forgotten his coat – but Berbatov, who famously learned his English from watching The Godfather, acquired a cult following of his own. This iconoclast might have looked like a bit of a loner, but it also meant Berbatov fitted firmly into Spurs’ tradition of stylish crowd darlings. He would have had it no other way.
HIGHLIGHT His September 2010 hat-trick for United against Liverpool featured a fine overhead kick. It also proved the last league treble against the Merseysiders for a decade, until Ollie Watkins’ shock glut for Aston Villa in October 2020.
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63. Paolo Di Canio
Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham United, Charlton Athletic
Happy birthday Paolo Di Canio! The brilliant Italian scored more than one fantastic volley in his #BPL career...https://t.co/rgL9pxGq1YJuly 9, 2015
Di Canio offered excitement and identity. Combustible, controversial and charismatic, he overshadowed the exciting generation of homegrown talents who went on to scale greater heights – although none performed with such elan or such unpredictability. He was the master of the feint, often beating the defender or goalkeeper an extra time before shooting.
Even Di Canio’s penalties – one famously wrestled off a furious Frank Lampard – could be Panenkas. The icon was a mass of contradictions but in between, Di Canio was simply one of the best footballers in the division.
HIGHLIGHT Egil Olsen’s notoriously direct Wimbledon were rarely associated with things of beauty... that is, until Trevor Sinclair launched a 50-yard diagonal pass against them. Rather than controlling, Di Canio met it on the volley with a scissor-kick that flew past Neil Sullivan. In its technique, audacity and execution, it’s among the top Premier League efforts of all time. His 2002 volley at Chelsea was almost as good, though.
62. Jay-Jay Okocha
Okocha was the Ronaldinho of the Reebok. More than anyone else, he made Bolton fashionable with a dazzling array of flicks and tricks, rabonas and stepovers. He could fool foes using his fancy footwork, allied with seemingly elastic legs that appeared to bend during some skills.
Few have found more imaginative ways to lift a ball; indeed, one mind-boggling piece of magic involved a rainbow flick over a baffled Ray Parlour. Okocha packed a vicious long shot and even a long throw, which almost definitely endeared him to Allardyce. He was, as the club merchandise used to say, so good they named him twice.
HIGHLIGHT Pick from the solo run and missile to defeat West Ham and help keep Bolton up in 2003... or the dance with Big Sam when survival was secured
61. Riyad Mahrez
Jamie Vardy may have scored more goals and N’Golo Kante became a global sensation, but Mahrez was crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year after providing the artistry that kept teams on the back foot all season. Defences knew exactly what was coming – the nightmarish, trademark chop inside – but could do nothing about it. He has a second Premier League winners’ medal with Manchester City, after seven more goals and four assists in 2018/19. At his best, there are few you would rather watch.
HIGHLIGHT Scoring Leicester’s second in that masterful win at the Etihad Stadium in February 2016, hopping over Nicolas Otamendi, then wrong-footing Martin Demichelis to fire past Joe Hart. Dilly ding, dilly dong: it was really on.
60. Michael Carrick
West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United
Manchester United almost didn’t sign Carrick in 2006, when chief executive David Gill phoned a golfing Alex Ferguson to say Spurs had upped the price – “typical Daniel Levy,” hissed the Scot. Some baulked at the £18m price tag, but Carrick’s class across 450-plus appearances brought five Premier League titles and proved he was worth every penny.
HIGHLIGHT Being crowned United’s Player of the Year in 2013, as the Red Devils won a final Premier League title under Fergie.
59. Gary Neville
Younger generations recognise the straight-talking pundit, but those who watched G-Nev play will recall his days as a boisterous right-back over almost 20 years at United. His intelligence, tough tackling and top-notch crossing made him an Old Trafford mainstay, even as his manager rebuilt several title-winning sides.
HIGHLIGHT Zealous celebrations after a late Rio Ferdinand winner against Liverpool at Old Trafford in January 2006 secured legendary status among Red Devils. And an FA fine. Boo.
58. Les Ferdinand
Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Leicester City, Bolton Wanderers
For the first six years of the Premier League, only Alan Shearer hit more goals. ‘Sir Les’ shone in a functional QPR team, then plundered 41 league strikes over back-to-back seasons for Newcastle’s ‘Entertainers’. A move to Spurs didn’t take off, but at Leicester a 37-year-old Ferdinand’s dozen goals showed his class.
HIGHLIGHT Ferdinand headed the Magpies’ third goal in the 5-0 gubbing of Manchester United from Shearer’s centre – a partnership which sadly lasted just a single campaign.
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57. David Seaman
Arsenal, Manchester City
Somehow, Seaman made his £1.3m British record move (for a goalkeeper) from QPR to Arsenal in 1990 look like a steal. He delivered 141 clean sheets in 344 Premier League matches, en route to two titles (after another in 1990-91) and more than a decade of reliable service.
HIGHLIGHT Posting 19 shutouts and leaking only 15 goals during a silverware-less season is hardly fair, but that was Seaman’s superb 1998-99. Arsenal finished one point behind Treble-winning Manchester United.
56. Nicolas Anelka
Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea, West Bromwich Albion
Nicolas Anelka applying a finish to match the one-touch @ManCity build-up play 😍#LIVMCI pic.twitter.com/O1FN4j3cFoOctober 5, 2018
Anelka was 17 years old when he became Arsene Wenger’s first official signing at Highbury. He won a double in 1997/98 and the PFA Young Player of the Year award a season later, having top-scored for Arsenal with 17 goals - but discontent was never far away.
Le Sulk notched impressive tallies at Houllier’s Liverpool and Keegan’s City before he snatched the Golden Boot ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, and won a second Premier League and FA Cup Double in 2010 – 12 years after his first.
HIGHLIGHT Anelka’s brilliant, rifled finish against United at Highbury in November 1997 was crucial to Arsenal’s Double and marked the real arrival of a thrilling prospect.
55. Gareth Bale
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Bale went 24 Premier League matches without a win for Tottenham, stretching from his bow in August 2007 through to September 2009. Four years after that first win, he was the planet’s most expensive player.
The Welshman’s evolution from skinny left-back to world-class attacker culminated in an explosive 2012/13 – one of the greatest individual campaigns in English football – in which he scored 21 league goals.
HIGHLIGHT A 90th-minute rocket to down West Ham at Upton Park in February 2013 encapsulated Bale at his best. Devastating.
54. Dwight Yorke
Aston Villa, Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham City, Sunderland
Yorke had already hit 60 Premier League goals by the time he arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1998 – but better was to come. Alongside Andy Cole, the £12.6m man from Aston Villa registered 18 league strikes during United’s Treble-winning campaign, pocketing himself the Golden Boot for good measure.
HIGHLIGHT A hat-trick and assist in a 6-1 stuffing of title rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford in February 2001 showcased Yorke’s class.
53. Raheem Sterling
Liverpool, Manchester City
Sterling was almost a title winner at 19; key in the fearsome Liverpool frontline of 2013-14. Many mocked City for shelling out £52m to sign him in 2015 nonetheless, but they were wrong to: Sterling has since honed his forward play to become a phenomenon for Pep Guardiola, helping City win consecutive Premier League crowns in the process. An inspirational ace.
HIGHLIGHT Being named PFA Young Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year as the Sky Blues pipped old club Liverpool to the title by a point in 2018-19.
52. Ricardo Carvalho
“Carvalho was horrible to play against,” Bobby Zamora told FFT in 2020. “He’d always know where the referee was, and he’d be getting in these little fouls when nobody was looking.” The Portuguese defender followed manager Jose Mourinho in swapping Porto for Chelsea in 2004, forming a watertight partnership with John Terry on the way to three league titles.
HIGHLIGHT With Carvalho in tow, Chelsea conceded just 15 goals as they sealed their maiden Premier League triumph in 2004/05.
51. David Ginola
Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Everton
𝕊 𝕆 𝕃 𝕆 special from David Ginola 🤩#GoalOfTheDay pic.twitter.com/tYrleT2ZSSApril 26, 2020
In the season when Manchester United won their famous Treble, 32-year-old Ginola became the first player of the Premier League era to win the PFA award without playing for a top-two team – Spurs finished 11th. Gareth Bale (twice, also for Tottenham) is the only other player to win the award for a side that didn’t finish in the top four.
Alex Ferguson was aggrieved when Ginola scooped the PFA Player of the Year award ahead of any of his players heroes, but the Frenchman was tremendous that season. The tricky winger dazzled supporters at Newcastle and Tottenham (less so at Aston Villa), and left numerous opposition full-backs with twisted blood.
HIGHLIGHT The FA Cup goal against Barnsley is Ginola’s piece-de-resistance - but the Frenchman scored another cracker as Manchester United were thrashed 5-0 on their St James’ Park return.
50. Michael Owen
Liverpool, Newcastle United, Manchester United, Stoke City
History tells us that Owen never managed 20 goals in a Premier League campaign, yet his record at Liverpool stood at an excellent 118 goals in 216 league games by the time he departed for Real Madrid in 2004. Newcastle followed, before a free transfer to Manchester United all but killed his Liverpool legacy.
Although Owen wasn’t quite done: his 96th-minute winner against rivals City in September 2009 sealed a famous 4-3 derby win. Those highs had all but died out long before; at one point though, there wasn’t a child in Britain who didn’t pretend to be Owen in the playground.
HIGHLIGHT An 18-year-old Owen, floating after France 98 and at the peak of his powers, slotted four goals past Nottingham Forest four months later.
49. Claude Makelele
A man so good that he has a position named after him, Makelele was perhaps Chelsea’s most important signing of the early Abramovich era. A defensive midfielder who kept the Galacticos grounded, he played the same role at Stamford Bridge, providing the engine for two Premier League crowns.
HIGHLIGHT Bundling in the rebound of his own missed penalty against Charlton on the final day of 2004-05’s title-winning season: his Blues team-mates loved him that much, they gave him the spot-kick.
48. Jamie Vardy
He is Leicester’s best-ever player. His eye-bulging effort and pantomime hustling lend themselves to cult status, but the former factory worker has backed that up season upon season with a stream of talismanic strikes. Vardy is now chomping into the Premier League’s top 20 scorers of all time, having not played a game in it until the age of 27.
HIGHLIGHT Breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record by netting in 11 consecutive Premier League games en route to 2015-16 title glory.
47. Teddy Sheringham
Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Portsmouth, West Ham United
Sheringham was 31 when he joined Manchester United in 1997, handed the unenviable task of replacing Eric Cantona. The frontman recovered from a slow start to thrive among fierce Old Trafford competition. Teddy scored in Forest’s first Premier League game in 1992, was still going at West Ham by 2006, aged 40, and was loved at Tottenham in between.
HIGHLIGHT A superb hat-trick at home to Southampton in October 2000 preceded PFA and FWA Footballer of the Year gongs.
46. Denis Irwin
Out of anyone Alex Ferguson had the privilege of mentoring, he named Denis Irwin his greatest signing. They don’t make full-backs like him anymore: imperious and unflinchingly consistent, he barely laid a toe out of step in 12 years at the top. Ferguson trusted the Irishman with his life - and rightly so.
HIGHLIGHT Captain for the final game of the 2001-02 season, Irwin was given the United send-off he deserved. Oh, and he helped keep a clean sheet - the important bit.
45. Yaya Toure
The 6ft 2in powerhouse, who had resented playing at centre-back in Barcelona, was moved into his natural midfield domain – frequently, as the most advanced man.
Alongside Silva’s subtle artistry, Toure’s impressive passing range, tackling and box-to-box bursts helped to take Mancini’s talented team to another level. In his second campaign, the Ivorian was at the heart of City’s Premier League title – his sixth assist of the season teed up Pablo Zabaleta’s opener during the nail-biting 3-2 final-day win over QPR.
HIGHLIGHT A March 2014 hat-trick against Fulham, with a trademark screamer, helped City to a rampant 5-0 win. A captain’s display en route to a second league triumph.
44. Robbie Fowler
Liverpool, Leeds United, Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers
Four minutes and 33 seconds was all it took for Liverpool to go 3-0 up against Arsenal in August 1994 thanks to Fowler’s record-breaking Premier League treble, which stood for more than two decades. Dubbed ‘God’ by the Kop for his supreme natural finishing, Fowler’s later spells with Leeds, Manchester City and Blackburn were blighted by injury.
HIGHLIGHT Successive PFA Young Player of the Year awards in 1994-95 and 1995-96, after stellar campaigns of 25 and 28 goals.
43. Robert Pires
Arsenal, Aston Villa
Peak Pires 👌#GoalOfTheDay pic.twitter.com/W0YChH9kEbOctober 3, 2017
“Wow, this football is not for me,” Arsenal’s new £6m signing muttered before coming off the bench for his August 2000 Premier League debut. He couldn’t believe the physicality. Pires grew to love English football, shining during the Gunners’ greatest spell with 14 goals in three seasons running from 2002-03.
HIGHLIGHT With Arsenal chasing down Manchester United for the 2002 title, Pires’ gorgeous lob over ex-Red Peter Schmeichel at Villa Park sealed all three points in style.
42. Xabi Alonso
When Liverpool went toe-to-toe with Manchester United for the 2008-09 title, they did it with their greatest midfield of the Premier League era. Captain Steven Gerrard rampaged, Javier Mascherano hared and, next to them, Alonso glided. The Spaniard was an instant hit from Real Sociedad in 2004, stunning team-mates with his pristine passing. Gerrard later called him “my most enjoyable partner”.
HIGHLIGHT Netting twice from inside his own half. The second, in September 2006 against Newcastle, put Steve Harper on his backside.
41. Tony Adams
The only player to captain a title-winning team across three different decades. For all Arsene Wenger’s sexy football, it’s the rugged Adams who supporters hold among their dearest. His leadership offered Wenger the canvas on which to create art – not least after returning from rehab to win the league in 1997-98.
HIGHLIGHT Latching onto Steve Bould’s looping ball to batter home Arsenal’s fourth goal against Everton in May 1998. A third title was his – would you believe it, indeed.
KOLO TOURE EXCLUSIVE “Slide-tackling Arsene Wenger changed my career. I was in a bit of shock, though…”
40. Ian Wright
Arsenal, West Ham United
Wright was 29 when the Premier League was founded. Arsenal came 10th in the first Premier League campaign but won both the FA Cup and League Cup, with their No.8 tallying 30 in all competitions; in fact, he bagged at least 15 league goals in the first six of his seven Highbury seasons, and at least 23 in half of those, thriving alongside Alan Smith or Kevin Campbell in attack for George Graham’s last few league campaigns.
Wright was a lesson that good things come to those who work hard, and remains a huge fan favourite more than two decades after exiting Arsenal. He was nearly 30 when the Premier League came calling – but wasted no time lighting it up.
HIGHLIGHT With Arsenal’s all-time scoring record on the line, Wright notched against Bolton in September 1997, then gleefully revealed his famous T-shirt bragging, “179. Just Done It.” He had only equalled Cliff Bastin’s 60-year record, so netted two more before full-time to make sure.
39. Sadio Mane
Mane has evolved from a talented, but erratic winger at Southampton into a world-class forward at Anfield, turning raw talent into consistent numbers. He’s the rhythm section of the fab front three, a creative force that glued the Merseysiders into title-winning titans.
HIGHLIGHT A goal and two assists in a 2019 5-2 derby thrashing of Everton set a new Red record of 32 top-tier league games unbeaten – but nothing beats his ludicrous Saints treble against Aston Villa in May 2015: struck in just two minutes and 56 seconds.
38. Jaap Stam
Stam made just 79 Premier League appearances, yet those three title-winning seasons from 1998-99 have loomed large ever since. He set the gold standard of modern defending, making strikers look weak and slow in his considerable shadow. His 2001 sale to Lazio remains Alex Ferguson’s biggest regret.
HIGHLIGHT United went unbeaten for the last 20 games of their Treble season. Stam played in 14 of them, leaking only nine goals – with seven clean sheets – to pip Arsenal.
37. N’Golo Kante
Leicester City, Chelsea
How many players arrive in England as genuine unknowns? Kante did in 2015 – then enjoyed one of football’s most magnificent breakout seasons in the unlikeliest of Premier League titles. The 5ft 6in dynamo was in France’s third tier as recently as 2013, but captured hearts – and opposition players – to secure successive titles with the Foxes and Chelsea.
HIGHLIGHT Ten-man Leicester lost against rivals Arsenal in February 2016, but Kante’s one-man show of industry almost earned the champions-in-waiting an unlikely draw.
THIAGO SILVA EXCLUSIVE How Frank Lampard helped woo the centre-back to Chelsea last summer
36. Cesc Fabregas
Fabregas trained with the Invincibles at 15 and grew to become a new revolution’s poster boy, persuading Arsene Wenger to bend his philosophy. The Spaniard was defter than past midfield generals, his gift an ability to kill teams with devastating simplicity. He made 18 assists in 2014/15, the first of two title wins at Chelsea.
HIGHLIGHT Four assists – to different players – plus a goal against Blackburn in October 2009. Only Ryan Giggs can beat his Premier League assist haul of 111.
35. Luis Suarez
There may never have been a greater individual performance over a Premier League season than Suarez’s in 2013/14; rarely has one player ever shaped a year to their will like Liverpool’s electric forward throughout that near-miss of a title campaign. He was – and still is – a one-man wrecking ball; a lethal hitman, yes, but also the ideal team-mate who facilitated the fine individual campaigns of Sturridge and a teenage Sterling.
HIGHLIGHT Four goals of outstanding class obliterated Norwich as Liverpool won 5-1 in December 2013 – having struck a hat-trick past the same opposition a year earlier.
34. Eden Hazard
Last year, Juan Mata described the Belgian as the Premier League’s greatest ever player. That may be a stretch, but there was little doubting the schemer’s talents or the ease with which he could destroy defences single-handedly. Hazard, who hit 85 goals in seven seasons, was the standout player of two Chelsea title triumphs in 2015 and 2017.
HIGHLIGHT A solo stunner against Arsenal in February 2017 was peak Hazard: glorious dribbling from inside his own half, opposition faintly embarrassed and a finish to match.
33. Robin van Persie
Arsenal, Manchester United
Van Persie vexed the Gunners by swapping north London for Manchester after eight years and 132 goals at Arsenal but, desperate to bag a Premier League medal after a sensational 30-goal season in 2011/12, he was proved right. Another 26 strikes helped Manchester United to their 13th Premier League crown under Alex Ferguson, in the Scot’s final year.
HIGHLIGHT His perfect volley from a raking Wayne Rooney pass – part of a title-sealing hat-trick against Aston Villa in April 2013.
32. Sol Campbell
Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Portsmouth, Newcastle United
Campbell’s crossing of the north London divide is still the most contentious Bosman deal in English football history, but in his pomp, he was the country’s best centre-back: a towering, brave, fast and intelligent defender who could rule either penalty area. Spurs fans don’t like to hear it, but the move was smart – Campbell won two league titles at Highbury.
HIGHLIGHT A pillar of reliability as Arsenal leaked just 26 goals across their Invincibles campaign of 2003-04.
MARK WHITE Was Sol Campbell's move to Arsenal the greatest Premier League transfer ever?
31. Ruud van Nistelrooy
Death, taxes and Van Nistelrooy tap-ins. After the Dutchman (eventually) signed from PSV for £19m in 2001, the prime poacher plundered 95 goals in 150 Premier League appearances across five campaigns with the Red Devils – pocketing a Premier League title and Golden Boot combo in 2002-03.
HIGHLIGHT OK, so they weren’t all tap-ins. An uncharacteristically mazy run from inside his own half preceded a cool finish against Fulham in March 2003, part of a fine hat-trick.
30. Gianfranco Zola
🔵 @ChelseaFC's loveable Italian 🇮🇹Gianfranco Zola's one and only hat-trick for the Blues#PLMoment pic.twitter.com/RsfPJkZZsYJune 10, 2018
“Gianfranco was iconic at Chelsea – he was part of the attraction,” ex-teammate Michael Duberry told FFT of Zola. “It was the influence he had on other Chelsea players like Frank Lampard, too. The attention to detail, to practise and work hard – it rubbed off on anyone who joined the club.”
“People talk about Jose Mourinho putting that mindset into Chelsea, but Zola had already been doing it. He had such an impact there. He transformed the club.”
Legacies don’t come much better than that. Chelsea’s successful era began back on that autumn day in 1996, when Gianfranco Zola walked through the door at Stamford Bridge.
HIGHLIGHT In the closing stages of the final game of the season, the 36-year-old schemer tormented a defender some 11 years his junior, turning Jamie Carragher inside out and sending the Liverpool stopper tumbling, before darting past two more bamboozled Reds in a sumptuous piece of skill. It would prove to be Zola’s final act in blue.
29. Edwin van der Sar
Fulham, Manchester United
The Dutchman had been a European champion at Ajax and regular at Juventus before joining newly promoted Fulham in a shock 2001 move. Four seasons later, Manchester United came calling, Alex Ferguson ending a six-year wait for the reliable stopper he had been hunting since Peter Schmeichel’s exit. The prototype for the sweeper keeper.
HIGHLIGHT A record 14 consecutive clean sheets between November and February led the Red Devils to Premier League title glory in 2008-09. Impregnable.
28. David Silva
Slight, short, foreign: would Silva be able to cope in English football? So pondered the pundits when City coughed up £24m for the Valencia man in 2010. ‘Merlin’ soon dropped jaws with his effortless displays for a side on the ascent, and proved the fulcrum of four league titles under three managers. They all adored him.
HIGHLIGHT A masterful performance as City gubbed Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford in October 2011. “The best individual display I’ve ever seen,” Micah Richards later told FFT.
27. Andy Cole
Newcastle United, Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Sunderland
Cole’s shock £7m switch to Old Trafford in January 1995 had Newcastle fans seething with manager Kevin Keegan. The striker had scored for fun at St James’ Park, including a stellar 34-goal 1993-94. Predictably, Cole hit 93 more league strikes for the Red Devils, bagging five titles over seven full campaigns.
HIGHLIGHT Cantona’s 1997 exit helped Cole, but Eric’s spirit lived on. Cole’s lesser-heralded chip against Everton that Boxing Day was ace.
26. David Beckham
Eight goals and seven assists over the 1996/97 season earned a 21-year-old Becks the PFA Young Player of the Year gong but, like so many United players, he enjoyed his greatest season in their Treble-winning campaign of 1998/99.
Beckham would win three more Premier League crowns after that, before leaving for Real Madrid for £25m. Has any player before or since boasted such natural ability to bend, spin and weigh passes with the effortlessness of United’s former No.7?
HIGHLIGHT That halfway line goal at Selhurst Park which shot Beckham into the Spice Girl-marrying stratosphere. Sullivan may still have nightmares.
25. Harry Kane
Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City
Top-scoring exploits haven’t yet brought a league title, but in 2020, Kane is more than just a fine striker: at 27 he is also England captain, a World Cup Golden Boot winner, and now picking off retired rivals in the top 10 scorers of Premier League history. Alan Shearer’s record haul of 260 is a lofty, but certainly not insurmountable target.
HIGHLIGHT That brilliant brace against Arsenal in 2015, as Spurs fans returned Gooners’ taunts that he was “one of their own”. Hubris, meet Nemesis.
24. Didier Drogba
"He was different class" - @wilfriedzaha on his #PLIdol, the one and only, @didierdrogba pic.twitter.com/XoHQ24Sk68December 28, 2016
The Ivorian embodies Abramovich-era Chelsea. Both physically elite and mentally resilient, he was an ace card in the Blues’ biggest games, but a flat-track bully as well. Drogba became the prototypical Mourinho forward who inspired a tactical change to lone frontmen in English football – every Chelsea striker since has had to measure up to his lofty standards.
HIGHLIGHT Drogba struck 29 goals in a title and Golden Boot-winning 2009/10, his brace at Arsenal in November featuring a stonking free-kick to wrap up a 3-0 victory.
23. Virgil van Dijk
To quantify Van Dijk’s influence at Liverpool is nigh on impossible. It’s not just the Dutchman’s terrifying 6ft 4in frame and effortless approach to defending which stand out, his leadership spreads calm where others breed chaos. “He has no weakness,” opined Sami Hyypia, who knows a thing or two on the subject.
HIGHLIGHT A towering header at home to Manchester United in a January 2020 win. Face to face with Harry Maguire, Van Dijk proved why he’s a different class altogether.
22. Kevin De Bruyne
Chelsea, Manchester City
City now orbit around De Bruyne. The Belgian is more than Pep Guardiola’s creative hub, he has a midfield role all of his own; their multi-talented action hero with a passing range unrivalled. The 29-year-old has won two league titles and equalled Thierry Henry’s long-standing single-season assist record of 20.
HIGHLIGHT It’s almost unfair to choose one. De Bruyne’s highlight reel of assists deserve an adult rating, but his inch-perfect pass to tee up Leroy Sané in a 7-2 thumping of Stoke in October 2017 was next level.
21. Nemanja Vidic
Rio Ferdinand’s 2002 arrival at Old Trafford was huge, but the picture was incomplete until £7m bargain Vidic rocked up at the start of 2006. United uncovered another leader with no significant weaknesses in the terrace favourite – the Serb is still the only defender to be named Premier League Player of the Season twice.
HIGHLIGHT Vidic endured a difficult first six months after moving from Spartak Moscow, but was captain by 2010. It was a measure of the “uncompromising sod” – Fergie’s words.
20. Vincent Kompany
Captain Kompany was the constant throughout City’s astonishing ascent. From his raw arrival at a club still finding its way in 2008, to becoming its beating heart across four title triumphs, the Belgian led by example in steering the team to hitherto unscalable heights.
HIGHLIGHT He was a man for the biggest occasions. First, a bullet derby header swung the 2011/12 title race to City. Seven years on, his swerving 30-yard thunderbolt at home to Leicester meant another winner’s medal. An iconic Premier League moment.
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19. Petr Cech
Glovemen in England have long had a reputation for being fiery or eccentric. Not the ice-cool Cech, though. He let in a poxy 15 goals in his maiden campaign at Chelsea, which set the tone for an outstanding top-flight career in which he won four titles and four Golden Gloves.
HIGHLIGHT In 2015, just over a decade after arriving in England, Cech kept a record 170th Premier League clean sheet as Arsenal beat Bournemouth. His final tally of 202 is unlikely to be topped any time soon.
18. Mohamed Salah
Salah arrived in the wrong place at the wrong time at Chelsea in 2014. Undeterred, he joined Liverpool three years later, following success with both Fiorentina and Roma, and couldn’t have picked his moment any better.
The ‘Egyptian King’ was the catalyst in turning a promising outfit into conquerors. A pair of Golden Boots have come amid domestic, European and world titles in three full seasons at Anfield.
HIGHLIGHT Records tumbled in his debut Reds campaign, including an all-time Premier League high 32 goals for a 38-game season.
17. Dennis Bergkamp
It’s apt that his statue at Arsenal depicts him pulling a ball out of the sky. The Dutch maestro celebrated three titles and 87 league goals in north London, but it’s his elegance which endures. Lethal and incisive, Bergkamp’s gift to English football was his artistry. Few are universally loved beyond the clubs they made their name with. The ‘Ice Man’ is, though.
HIGHLIGHT Any excuse to watch that 1997 Leicester hat-trick – his third, physics-defying goal the pick of a stunning triple.
BERGKAMP EXCLUSIVE “I’d love a return to English football – Arsenal would be ideal”
16. Sergio Aguero
A moment of magic from Sergio Aguero...#PLMoments pic.twitter.com/66hf6XEFbXOctober 20, 2016
We asked former colleague and compatriot, Pablo Zabaleta, to tell us why King Kun deserved a spot in the top 20…
“Kun always retained the personality of a kid from the neighbourhood – someone who has fun and has the ability to live with a smile on his face every day. He’s an outgoing guy who lives with enthusiasm.
“I don’t think there’s been another player like Aguero in the history of Manchester City – maybe David Silva, who also left his mark on an era. Both are players who arrived from other important clubs and then stayed for a long time, even though they could have left and signed for other teams. World-class people. They made City what they are today. Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany are also in that group, but Aguero has scored so many goals and that makes him special.
“When he popped up against QPR to win us the Premier League in 2012, he was the only player who could have been in that situation. Anybody else would have looked for a penalty, fallen over or shot over the bar. He was the one – he was destined to be the man of that season.
“He’s always been a special player who is ready to score important goals. For me, he’s the best striker the Premier League has had in the last decade.”
HIGHLIGHT Is it even possible to think of Sergio Aguero’s name in the same way ever again? The most climatic moment of Premier League history in May 2012 is unlikely to be matched for its importance or drama.
15. Peter Schmeichel
Manchester United, Aston Villa, Manchester City
“Bargain of the century,” was Alex Ferguson’s assessment of the great Dane, plucked from Brondy for £505,000 in July 1991. Schmeichel was United’s finest goalkeeper, his leadership, bravery and reflexes essential in five title wins, before bowing out on a high after the 1999 Treble.
HIGHLIGHT A sensational display against rivals Newcastle in March 1996 – pulling off save after save in a 1-0 win – proved pivotal in the title race. Stunning.
14. Ashley Cole
Great in attack as well as defence 👏👏Thank you for the memories, Ashley Cole pic.twitter.com/3H0F952WrEAugust 18, 2019
Having Ashley Cole in your team was like having two players in one on the left. The defender melded intelligence with athleticism to become an Invincible at 23, then swapped north London for west to win every other trophy going at Stamford Bridge. Probably the most complete full-back in football history.
HIGHLIGHT Cole bested Cristiano Ronaldo in a draw against Manchester United in 2006. “He kind of put his hand up and said, ‘I want to go off’ – I think that was a good time to say I had him in my pocket,” winked Cole.
13. Rio Ferdinand
West Ham United, Leeds United, Manchester United, Queens Park Rangers
As a lad, the Peckham native famously turned down a five-year scholarship at the Central School of Ballet to focus more on football. His career was no less on pointe. Tall, strong, graceful and effortlessly calm in possession, there was something gloriously cultured to Ferdinand, twice the world’s most expensive defender.
HIGHLIGHT Rio was key to a United defence which conceded just 22 goals as they won the 2007-08 Premier League, his third of six.
12. John Terry
We asked former teammate Michael Ballack to tell us the importance of the man that Chelsea fans unfurled the “Captain, Leader, Legend” in honour of…
“Throughout my career, I thought it was so important to the success of a team – in the short term and long-term – to have a core of domestic players. Manchester United were successful under Alex Ferguson with a group of English players, and when I was at Bayern Munich there were several influential German guys at the club.
“John Terry was a massive figure at Chelsea – he kept the team together. It’s important at a club that you have a captain who leads by example, and we had that in John. Even if he was injured, he always travelled with the team. He looked after the other players, the staff – he embodied everything that a captain should be. The Chelsea players recognised and respected that a lot.
“On the pitch, he was a typical English defender: strong, good in the air, fearless and a great tackler. He read the game superbly. To be honest, I can’t think of a particular match where John stood out for Chelsea – but that’s just because he was such a consistent performer. He played so well in every match that his exceptional performances just became the norm.”
HIGHLIGHT Terry was named PFA Players’ Player of the Year as Chelsea broke the Premier League record for fewest goals conceded in Mourinho’s first campaign, then honed their menacing brand of bastardry to enjoy the three greatest defensive campaigns of their history.
11. Roy Keane
Nottingham Forest, Manchester United
Keane won seven Premier League titles at United, four FA Cups, the Champions League and Intercontinental Cup. He became their most important player after Eric Cantona retired in 1997 – the year Keane was handed the captaincy.
“He was a combative player who could smell danger, read situations and tell where the ball was dropping. He was defensive-minded but could also break forward,” close friend and teammate Denis Irwin said. “He was a huge driving force in training and in being Manchester United.”
HIGHLIGHT That extraordinary Champions League performance against Juventus typified the season: in 1999, Keano grabbed the side by the scruff of the neck and led United to an unprecedented Treble.
JUAN VERON EXCLUSIVE “I’ll never regret joining Manchester United – I wished I’d stayed there longer”
10. Paul Scholes
Who’s the greatest Premier League midfielder ever? Jamie Ward of The United Stand tell us why there’s only one answer in his mind…
Scholes was not only the best player – he was the best English player of a generation. A raw, once-in-a-lifetime talent.
Thierry Henry names him as the one player he wishes he could have played alongside – as did Pep Guardiola. Barcelona legend Xavi claims Scholes would have been rated even higher had he been Spanish. Andrea Pirlo calls the Class of ’92 graduate the “truly great English midfielder of his generation”. Zinedine Zidane, one of the game’s legends, cites not playing with Scholes as the biggest regret of his playing career. You get it. Scholes was a real players’ player.
Liverpool and Chelsea supporters will say he was shoved over on the left for England because Gerrard and Lampard were better. Sven-Goran Eriksson will say it was because he was the only one of the three who could adapt to the positional change. His England team-mates plundered more goals, yes, but remove Gerrard’s 32 Premier League penalties and his tally (88) drops well below Scholes’ 106. Remove Lampard’s 43 spot-kicks and his goal average moves in line with the United man’s.
Arsenal supporters will bring Patrick Vieira into the debate. The Frenchman was indeed phenomenal for the Gunners, but even he concedes that Scholes was the player “who could do everything”.
The only answer is Scholes… and I haven’t even mentioned his trophies.
9. Patrick Vieira
Arsenal, Manchester City
Tim Stillman of Arseblog tells FFT all about why Super Pat was so integral to Arsene Wenger’s greatest sides…
Although Thierry Henry’s name rebounded from the North Bank so often, it was Vieira who drew the real choral affection of Arsenal’s crowd. The towering skipper’s song, to the tune of Italian Eurovision ditty Nel Blu, Dipinto Di Blu (Volare), was top of the Highbury hit parade.
Supporters recognised Vieira as the symbol of one of the Gunners’ greatest ever teams. The midfield icon once described himself as having “French feet and an African heart” – exactly what he gave Arsene Wenger’s side.
Vieira was a warrior who had the feet of a ballerina. His countless disputes with Roy Keane and “occasional” fits of temper had him portrayed as a hard man; the enforcer around whom Arsenal’s team of sprinters and talented dancers orbited. However, to remember him that way is to unfairly reduce his repertoire of skills.
Vieira had a silken touch, his feet as soft as pillows as he cradled the ball on the end of his boot shortly after chapeau-ing another hapless opponent. He could slalom past you or just bulldoze beyond you: ultimately, the painful choice was yours.
There’s a good reason why new midfield starlets are still labelled ‘the new Vieira’ after all these years. The truth is, there hasn’t been a player with his blend of qualities since – at Arsenal, nor any other team. Vieira was, and continues to be, unique.
8. Frank Lampard
West Ham United, Chelsea, Manchester City
Garry Hayes on what Frank Lampard means to the Premier League
Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea in 2003 changed English football. The inflated wages and transfer fees have reshaped the landscape of the Premier League ever since.
For all the Russian billionaire shook things up, Lampard did the same for his position in midfield. We can get lost in the conversation about Vieira, Scholes and Gerrard’s individual brilliance, but what did they truly accomplish outside of winning silverware? Lampard’s legacy, after those trophies won and 177 Premier League goals, was to alter what we’ve come to expect from a raiding central midfielder. These players are treated like strikers now.
It’s not enough to do ‘the things we don’t see’. Fans, pundits and – most importantly – managers, expect their No.8 to fire home in the high teens each season. End product isn’t desired – it’s demanded.
While Vieira was inspiring an exodus from Arsenal, and Scholes and Gerrard were both playing catch-up to Chelsea, Lampard was setting the agenda. It’s why people speak of Diego Maradona in such glowing terms. He may not have won all of Lionel Messi’s trophies, but without him there wouldn’t be a Messi. That’s right, I did just compare Lampard to Maradona: because without Lampard, the role of a midfielder in 2021 would be very different.
So, Vieira, Scholes, Gerrard or Lampard? It’s not even a debate.
7. Steven Gerrard
Author Tony Evans on a Scouse colossus, remembered as a hero for as long as football is played…
Of Liverpool’s many legends, he stands out for his composure in a crisis. When the clock was ticking down and there was one final opportunity to save the day, he was the man you wanted with the ball at his feet. Gerrard soaked up responsibility. He could play in any position, too. If you were building a prototype Premier League player of the late-90s, they would have looked like the Liverpool captain. He was strong, quick and had a remarkable passing range. His technique was majestic, and all the more impressive because he did everything slightly quicker than everyone else on the pitch.
The turning point for Gerrard came in the summer of 2005, starting with what seemed like a stunning act of betrayal just six weeks after lifting the Champions League trophy. He agreed to join Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea but, over an emotionally draining sleepless night of panic attacks, realised he couldn’t walk away from his boyhood club. It was a painful time, but the reaffirmation of his relationship with Liverpool began a process that swept away any doubters. He would have won more medals at Chelsea, but instead became an icon for a city that cherishes football above almost everything else.
There were disappointments, though. He should have been part of a team that broke the title drought long before Jurgen Klopp’s side achieved the feat last year. In 2008-09, with Gerrard playing in an adventurous role behind Fernando Torres, Liverpool finished second to a Manchester United side they had routed 4-1 at Old Trafford. Five years on, with a Premier League winner’s medal almost in his grasp, Gerrard slipped against Chelsea – in that moment, the league was gone. The incident may haunt him, but it shouldn’t: that failure in 2014 was one of tactics rather than individual errors. Poor management cost the Reds that title, not the stumble.
In turn, the Kop agonised for the captain; a man they knew personified the crowd. His greatness goes beyond his ability, even if he was the most talented English player of his generation. He symbolised Liverpool, the club and the city.
6. Eric Cantona
Leeds United, Manchester United
CANTONA'S KICK, 25 YEARS ON How he went from foreign villain to international treasure
If we're talking about pure impact, Eric Cantona would have this wrapped up before we started. The Frenchman's transfer from Leeds to Manchester United in June 1992 heralded two things: the dawn of the new Premier League era and the start of a period of unprecedented success for the Red Devils.
Cantona was the genius behind the club's first title under Ferguson, and three subsequent league triumphs, providing a youthful yet talented team with a genuine world-class focal point.
Collar popped, chest out, Cantona relished centre-stage, dragging United over the line and achieving god-like status among United fans. The first true megastar of the Premier League era.
5. Ryan Giggs
“I remember the first time I ever saw him,” recalled Alex Ferguson of Giggs in his 2013 autobiography. “He was 13 years old, and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”
The Scot gave a 17-year-old Giggs his debut in March 1991, the Welshman becoming a regular the following season and repaying his manager’s faith with back-to-back PFA Young Player of the Year campaigns. The pin-up boy’s searing pace and dribbling paved the way for Fergie’s other fledglings to make their debuts over the following years – he showed the Class of ’92 what was possible.
Giggs might be a contender for the greatest Manchester United player of all time – the midfielder racked up 963 appearances for the Red Devils, more than anyone else. He wasn’t just a solid squad player, but consistently ace for the world’s biggest club over two decades. Others may have had marginally more impact, but Giggs tore them apart. Again and again.
4. Wayne Rooney
Everton, Manchester United
Few players have made their English football entrance in more barnstorming fashion. Rooney’s thunderous winner for Everton against Arsenal in 2002, aged 16, announced his arrival as an exceptional Premier League talent; later, his Manchester United debut featured a hat-trick in the Champions League.
A boy who lived for the big stage, the ‘assassin-faced baby’ was a thrilling firebrand who feared nothing and nobody, but only added to his game as years passed by. He replaced Ruud van Nistelrooy as a superior all-round striker to help United continue their dominance in the face of new Premier League forces.
That Rooney became the Premier League’s second-top goalscorer with 208 strikes is notable. Arguably more so, though, is the fact that he’s also its third-highest assister. Versatile and unselfish, England’s record marksman was particularly monstrous from 2009-11 for United, when he stepped up after Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid. A special player taking great responsibility.
3. Alan Shearer
Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United
Shearer retired with 283 league goals – and one celebration. Rich Jolly explains what made the all-time Premier League top scorer quite so unique…
Shearer’s relentlessness and ruthlessness brought him accolades. He’s still by far the fastest to a Premier League century (in 124 games, 17 fewer than anyone else); still the only Englishman to scoop the Golden Boot three years in a row; still alone in scoring 30 in three consecutive campaigns; still alone in hitting 20 in seven Premier League seasons.
He plundered 31 for a Blackburn team that came seventh and 23 for a Newcastle outfit that finished in the bottom half of the table. He smashed five goals in a fixture when the Magpies started the day in 19th place. No one else with a ton of Premier League goals for one team comes close to his ratio of 0.81 per game for Blackburn.
Throw in his 64 assists, and no one else has been involved in 324 Premier League goals.
Two factors make the bare statistics even more remarkable. Two cruciate ligament injuries forced him to evolve from an eager channel-runner who liked playing alongside a targetman, to the physical focal point who, aided by Sir Bobby Robson’s advice, remained potent. Second: he turned down Manchester United in 1996 for the siren call of his native Tyneside. With the Red Devils’ supply line, his 260 efforts might have surpassed 300.
Instead, after leading Blackburn to a first top-flight title in 81 years, he endured five lower-half finishes with his hometown club. Yet, as Kenny Dalglish – his manager at both Blackburn and Newcastle – informed Shearer inelegantly last year, “It didn’t matter who you played for, you always battered them in.”
Brute force was often allied with finesse. Shearer’s favourite goal, his cannonball volley against Everton in 2002, is a case in point. He was a wonderfully clean striker of the ball, but was also brilliant in the air: only Peter Crouch has notched more Premier League headers, and he has a seven-inch height advantage. Only Jimmy Greaves, Steve Bloomer, Dixie Dean and Gordon Hodgson have struck more goals in England’s top flight.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
On August 16, 2003, a pair of substitutes made their debuts for Manchester United. The first went on to become one of the greatest players of all time; the second went on to become Eric Djemba-Djemba.
Djemba-Djemba’s Old Trafford career was doomed before he had stepped on the field. Introduced only six minutes after Cristiano Ronaldo, he had already been left with an impossible act to follow.
Manchester United were labouring against Bolton in their league season opener, leading 1-0 after an hour, when Ronaldo replaced Nicky Butt. Aged 18, with blond streaks in his hair that hinted at a certain confidence, the wonderkid had arrived from Portuguese side Sporting for £12.5m days earlier, taking the No.7 shirt vacated by David Beckham. The crowd greeted CR7’s introduction so loudly, and with such elation, that you wondered whether the new boy could possibly match their sky-high expectations. In fact, he more than exceeded them.
Not only did he have the balls, he frequently had the ball in the final half-hour, becoming United’s go-to man as it became obvious how devastatingly effective he could be. “He did about 100 stepovers and earned a penalty,” Kevin Davies later told FFT.
What better way to kick-off your matchday...? #GoalOfTheDay @Cristiano pic.twitter.com/fIBMElMojEDecember 17, 2016
These days, Ronaldo would seize the ball and stick the penalty into the net himself – back then, Ruud van Nistelrooy had spot-kick duties and was denied by Jussi Jaaskelainen. It didn’t matter: Ronaldo soon grabbed hold of possession again and whipped in a cross that eventually led to Ryan Giggs making it 2-0 from close range.
Still the prodigy wasn’t done. “Of his own volition, Ronaldo moved out to the right wing and put two superb crosses in,” continued his gaffer. “The crowd on that side of the ground responded as if a Messiah had materialised before their eyes.”
Ferguson hailed it as “a marvellous debut, almost unbelievable”. “Undoubtedly the most exciting debut performance I’ve ever seen,” was George Best’s assessment, himself an iconic United No.7. By the time Ronaldo left the field at the final whistle, the Old Trafford faithful were chanting his name. For six years, they rarely stopped.
Everyone present that afternoon knew that a star had been born. Only one man has ever been named FIFA World Player of the Year while playing in the Premier League – and it wasn’t Eric Djemba-Djemba.
1. Thierry Henry
In truth, Henry’s hat-trick clincher at home to Liverpool in April 2004 was quite fluky. It was, though, the only moment all afternoon that he wasn’t in abundant control.
Arsenal’s equaliser was a mirror to Henry’s first Highbury league goal against Derby, only less nervously placed – a first-time, left-foot strike. By now, however, such lethal finishing felt like vintage Thierry, rather than an Ian Wright tribute act.
Arsenal trailed 2-1 to the Reds at half-time, their Invincibles status in jeopardy, but Henry seemed to slow down time by the touchline after the break; jogging, his right leg hovering like a magician’s handkerchief over a dove, before passing to Ljungberg who looped Pires in to level proceedings. A minute later, it was all over. Henry picked up the ball by the centre circle, then strode beyond Didi Hamann, bamboozled Jamie Carragher, folded Liverpool inside-out and buried home in the bottom corner. Henry had immense power but made football look weightless.
No one has won the Golden Boot more times. No one assisted more in a season. No one has terrorised defenders with such a combination of bewitching grace and phenomenal power. He was the catalyst in two Premier League titles for Arsenal, carried them on his back during the dark days and lit up English football with his signature swagger.
Thierry Henry isn’t just the King of Highbury or a once-in-a-generation striker though. He represents the artistry with which Arsene Wenger’s greatest sides flourished. He made football fun; it looked classy, effortless and beautiful all in one. He may have left Arsenal in 2007, but Henry at his peak would have thrived in any era, in any team in Premier League history.
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Conor Pope is the Online Editor of FourFourTwo, overseeing all digital content, and joined the team in February 2019. He plays football regularly, both on grass and artificial surfaces, and has a large, discerning and ever-growing collection of football shirts from around the world.
He supports Blackburn Rovers and holds a season ticket with south London non-league side Dulwich Hamlet. His main football passions include Tugay, the San Siro and only using a winter ball when it snows.