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Ranked! The 16 best Premier League players of the 1990s

Best Premier League players

With FourFourTwo magazine’s ’90s special out now, Huw Davies assesses the best players of that decade to grace English football – from the ultimate captain to the ruthless artist

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16. Gary Speed (Leeds, Everton, Newcastle)

Gary Speed

Nobody played more games in the Premier League’s first 10 years than Speed, and a supreme commitment to fitness allowed him years later – aged 35, then 37 – to play every match in two of his three seasons with Bolton. His top-five tally of 535 Premier League appearances will not be surpassed soon.

But Speed’s greatness was about more than consistency. In his 1990s prime with Leeds (where he won the title in 1991/92), Everton and Newcastle, the Welshman brought leadership, intelligence, versatility, creativity, grit, guts and goals: 80 in the Premier League, one every six or seven games, and many of them headers – uncommon for a midfielder, winger and full-back.

15. Gary Pallister (Man United, Middlesbrough)

Gary Pallister

You heard. Pallister’s relative reluctance to embrace the spotlight after retirement has wrongly undermined his importance to ’90s-era Manchester United. Yet the centre-back partnership of Pallister and Steve Bruce was as intimidating as their nickname, Dolly and Daisy, was not.

PFA Player of the Year in 1992, Pallister made four consecutive Teams of the Year; five in total. And amid four titles in his six Premier League campaigns with United, they somehow conceded the fewest goals in the two they didn’t win: just 54 across 80 matches in 1994/95 and 1997/98. At least someone was doing their job.

14. Patrick Vieira (Arsenal)

Patrick Vieira

Enthusiastically dubbed “the thinking man’s Carlton Palmer” by The Times following his Arsenal debut, Vieira became one of the Premier League’s greatest midfielders. His low position in this countdown is only because the Frenchman was just 23 when the ’90s ended and, even with his World Cup and Double double in 1998, yet to reach his towering peak.

Nonetheless, ’90s Vieira had tremendous all-round talent. Posterity paints him as a destroyer, but he excelled at beating players and keeping the ball. He created goals, too – including, unfortunately, one for Ryan Giggs in a certain FA Cup semi-final replay in 1999.

13. David Beckham (Man United)

David Beckham

As 2000 dawned, Beckham bestrode England like a colossus, his image seared into every brain cell. So, when Posh ’n’ Becks frenzy reached its height in 1999 with the holy trinity of marriage (in a castle), an heir (with a celebrity name) and reference in American pop culture (Eminem pondering “which Spice Girl to impregnate”), many asked if Beckham – whose red card had precipitated England’s World Cup exit the previous year – was actually any actual good at actual football.

Of course he was. Fabulous technique and an almost masochistic commitment to training made 20-year-old Beckham a regular in Manchester United’s Double-winning team, before he kicked off their 1996/97 season with a goal from his own half. By 1999/2000’s close, Beckham – a right-sided midfielder more than a winger – had scored or assisted 88 goals in his 175 Premier League games. Yeah, he could play.

12. Tony Adams (Arsenal)

Tony Adams

On his Arsenal debut, Adams played alongside Pat Jennings. In his final Arsenal appearance, he played alongside Ashley Cole. To be at the heart of one team’s defence for nearly 20 years is impressive enough; to do that while the team changes beyond all recognition, and as captain from 21 through to retirement at 35, is pretty special.

Arsene Wenger was Adams’ fifth manager at Highbury, yet his lifestyle revolution seemingly posed a threat: Adams had revealed his alcoholism in a front-page exclusive just as his new boss was being appointed.

However, the two worked together to banish Arsenal’s drinking culture, and Adams kept a famous defence in line (literally) while Wenger added flair and fluidity to the front six. The result: two Double wins in five years. Their later spat resembles a particularly tragic divorce.

11. David Ginola (Newcastle, Tottenham)

David Ginola

Today’s cynics might scoff that we were taken in by Ginola’s Gallic flair and glossy hair. His middle name is Desire, after all.

However, it's no coincidence that Newcastle’s consecutive title challenges came during Ginola’s two years on Tyneside. Then, at Spurs, in the season when Manchester United won an unprecedented Treble… well, to quote Wikipedia: “Ginola was voted PFA Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year after helping his club win the League Cup.” Even with the United vote split, that says a lot for the Frenchman’s broader impact in England.