Ranked! The 16 best Premier League players of the 1990s
5. Ryan Giggs (Man United)
As with fellow Welshman Gary Speed, appraisals of Giggs’s playing career often cite his longevity over his ability.
So, remember: Giggs the winger – ’90s Giggs – was a phenomenon. He was fast, crossed with precision, averaged a goal or assist every two games throughout the decade, and took wonderful free-kicks that gave Manchester United the choice of his left foot or Beckham’s right.
While his metamorphosis into a midfielder was admirable, seeing Giggs tear down the touchline was the purest delight.
4. Roy Keane (Nottingham Forest, Man United)
Captaincy in football is a largely honorific role, and its importance can be overstated. On the other hand, there’s Roy Keane.
Signed by Manchester United for a record fee after he'd made the 1992/93 PFA Team of the Year despite finishing bottom with Nottingham Forest, Keane was 21 when he arrived, yet played more league games in his first season (37) than in any later campaign.
Between suspensions and injuries, Keane inspired his United team-mates with his infectious work rate, crucial goals and... er, bellowing. After the midfielder’s all-action performance in Turin for the second leg of their 1999 Champions League semi-final, Alex Ferguson wrote: “It was an honour to be associated with such a player.”
Keane’s influence even extended to his absence. A spoiler for our top three: there is no Scholes. For most of the ’90s, Scholes was a half-decent forward, in and out of the team. An injury to Keane meant Scholes dropped back, and the stellar midfielder was born.
3. Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal)
“The pleasure of scoring goals is known, but for me, the pleasure of the assist came close. It’s like solving a puzzle. I always had a picture in my head of how things would look two or three seconds later – I could calculate it. There’s a tremendous pleasure in doing something that someone else couldn’t see.”
Bergkamp’s words to FFT in 2011 perfectly encapsulated his own aesthetic appeal. He was also ruthless. Arsenal’s Double-winning team had several stars – and Marc Overmars’s remarkable habit of scoring vital goals was underrated – but only Bergkamp, PFA Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year with 27 goal contributions in 28 league games that season, combined art with end-product so efficiently.
2. Alan Shearer (Blackburn, Newcastle)
Goal tallies aren’t everything, but nothing better illustrates Shearer’s 1990s greatness. His record was preposterous.
In four years at Blackburn, the ex-Southampton marksman delivered a Premier League title and 112 goals in 138 matches. The world’s best No.9 today, Robert Lewandowski, scored 106 in his past 138 appearances, and his wingman is Arjen Robben, not Stuart Ripley.
And Shearer remained prolific despite injury. His first Blackburn season brought a snapped ACL. He was 22, at a new club, stricken... and scored 16 goals in 21 games. At Newcastle, he had one season (31 games, 25 goals, a second PFA Player of the Year award and a third Golden Boot) before torn ankle ligaments forced him to become a targetman – whereupon he still scored one in two.
In total, Shearer netted 260 goals in 441 Premier League games for two teams who, between them, averaged a seventh-place finish. Again: preposterous.
1. Eric Cantona (Leeds, Man United)
Yes, his cult status is elevated by popped collars, kung-fu kicks, seagulls and trawlers. Nevertheless, in just four-and-a-half years at Manchester United, Cantona shaped English football in the 1990s like no other player.
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When the Frenchman arrived in November 1992, United were eighth, having scored fewer goals than two teams in the relegation zone. Then Cantona strolled into the changing room like a bomb defusal expert assuring citizens that everything would be fine. His attitude was invigorating; so too, the way he dropped deep and demanded the ball before driving forward and assisting team-mates or, as with that famous chip against Sunderland, going it alone. United recovered to claim their first top-flight league title since 1967.
Cantona was a powerful yet creative force. Most importantly, he scored when it mattered. In the spring of 1995/96, with Newcastle pushing his team all the way, Cantona netted in six consecutive games. The scorelines were 1-0, 1-1, 1-0, 1-0, 3-2 and 1-0; his goals included the winner at Newcastle and a 90th-minute equaliser. Then he scored the only goal in the FA Cup final against Liverpool as Manchester United sealed the Double.
Inexplicably, Cantona retired at Old Trafford aged 30. Having made his United debut in an invitational held for Eusebio, his final appearance came in a testimonial for David Busst. You can’t have everything.