Ten isn’t many, is it? Picking the best Welsh players ever was simple; our original list even had two defenders, in European Cup winner Joey Jones and Everton giant Kevin Ratcliffe. Trimming the list to only 10… not so simple.
Some bona fide legends miss out. Ivor Allchurch was Wales’ star when they reached the last eight of the 1958 World Cup, but he doesn’t feature here. Neither do Trevor Ford (38 caps, 23 goals, British record transfer in 1950), John Toshack (seven major titles as a player), nor Aaron Ramsey, the best player in Wales’ astonishing run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
But try leaving out one of these world-class players instead. Presenting: the 10 greatest Welsh footballers in history.
The 10 best Welsh players ever: 10. Gary Speed
As the song says: there’s only one Gary Speed. Consistency and commitment earned the midfielder 85 caps and 614 top-flight appearances, the 12th-most in English history. Even at 37, Speed – a title-winner with Leeds 15 years previous – started every match of Bolton’s 2006/07 Premier League campaign.
He was leadership personified, fighting for his team and even himself: when one Wales manager tried to transfer his captaincy to Mark Hughes, Speed simply told him, “F**k off. F**k you. I’ve worked my arse off to be captain of my country and you’re not taking the armband from me.” He was correct.
9. Terry Yorath
Yorath must’ve spent his childhood walking under ladders and kicking black cats. His first misfortune was to compete for a place in Leeds’ midfield with Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles, two of Don Revie’s favourite bastards. He also lost in finals of the European Cup (as the first Welshman to play in one), UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup, experienced tragedy at the Bradford stadium fire, then came within a crossbar’s width of coaching Wales to a World Cup.
But there’s a reason team-mates respected, even revered Yorath. A creator and a destroyer, he inspired Wales to reach the last eight of Euro 76. Terrible hair, mind.
8. Cliff Jones
Winning the Double was deemed impossible before Tottenham did it in 1961. Flying down the wing was Jones, who was prolific for a player of his type in his time: 16 goals in 59 caps buttressed 159 in 378 appearances for Spurs, where he added the Cup Winners’ Cup to four domestic honours.
Jones, a World Cup quarter-finalist who drew a world-record transfer bid from Juventus, taught PE after retiring. In 2020’s lockdown he was filmed, aged 85, demonstrating a fitness routine. Who needs Joe Wicks?
7. Neville Southall
In the late 1980s, Southall was probably the world’s best goalkeeper. That’s no exaggeration. His reactions were peerless, a flurry of limbs repelling shots in phenomenal displays for Wales and Everton. He lifted five major trophies, received two Ballon d’Or nominations and remains the most recent keeper to win FWA Footballer of the Year… 37 years ago.
The former binman and future campaigner was unique. One story encapsulates him well. Everton beat Manchester United 1-0 in the 1995 FA Cup Final with a masterclass from their 36-year-old goalkeeper, but while his team-mates partied, Southall drove home, gave a lift to some stranded United fans, and was in bed by 10.30pm.
6. Billy Meredith
One of football’s first superstars, the rakish, toothpick-chewing Meredith starred in a film, was banned for bribing an opponent, formed the PFA’s forerunner and played from 1893 right up to 1924, but most impressively of all, he won fans at Manchester City and Manchester United. Making more than 300 league appearances for each, winning four trophies, will have that effect.
Meredith was strong, fit and agile, which many attributed to the winger’s work in the mines between the ages of 12 and 21. We wouldn’t recommend it.
5. Mark Hughes
Familiarity breeds contempt, and memories of Hughes’ playing days may have been tainted by seeing him grumpily inhabit Premier League technical areas for 15 years. But he was an extraordinary talent at Manchester United, who spent a club-record fee to bring him back after losing him to Barcelona.
The PFA Young Player of the Year became a two-time PFA Player of the Year and one-time Ballon d’Or contender with 11 major honours and a delicious international highlights reel, featuring a debut winner against England and an acrobatic stunner against Spain a year later. Hughes turned the volley into an artform.
He also played twice on the same day in 1987, for Wales and Bayern Munich – commitment rarely shown by our next entrant…
4. Ryan Giggs
Most Cymru fans wouldn’t put Giggs in their all-time XI, such is the distaste for his priorities as a player. Injury-free, he nonetheless played in just 57% of all Wales games between his first cap and international retirement, then represented Manchester United for another seven years.
But, if we’re talking greats, you can’t argue with 22 major trophies and the sixth-most top-flight appearances in English football.
3. Ian Rush
Forget the ’90s – in the 1980s, Rush was elite. How else do you score the fourth-most top-flight goals in English post-war history?
The goals flowed in tandem with trophies, with two European Cups, five league titles and eight domestic cups jostling for room on Rush’s mantelpiece with his European Golden Boot, English Golden Boot, FWA Footballer of the Year, PFA Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year awards. He finished 4th in the Ballon d’Or after netting 47 goals (no penalties) in Liverpool’s 1983/84 season.
Inevitably he became Wales’ top scorer, at least until 2018, taking them to the brink of two major tournaments with a Euro 92 winner against Germany and eight goals in USA 94 qualifying – or rather, not qualifying. He deserved to be there.
2. John Charles
How good was the Gentle Giant? Well, England legend Billy Wright was once asked to name the best centre-forward he’d faced. He said John Charles. Nat Lofthouse was asked to name the best centre-back he’d faced. He said John Charles.
As Bobby Robson put it, no other player has been world-class in two positions, but Charles – “a team unto himself”, in Jack Charlton’s words – managed it. In attack, he politely bullied defenders and had two great feet competing in a three-way Golden Boot race with his head. Wales reached the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals and could’ve gone further had Charles not been hacked to pieces by defenders.
Charles doubled the British transfer record when Juventus signed him from Leeds and he justified it with five trophies and two goalscoring awards. From 1957 to 1962, his Ballon d’Or placings read: 6th, 4th, 3rd, 7th, 8th, 8th. Decent pipes, too (opens in new tab).
1. Gareth Bale
Leading Cymru to only their second World Cup takes Bale to No.1. Or maybe it’s his record-breaking 38 Wales goals, his five players’ awards within three years at Spurs, or five Champions League triumphs with Real Madrid. All right, four meaningful ones. ‘Just’ four.
As a tearaway tearing away down the left, an unstoppable worldie-merchant cutting in from the right, and finally an inspirational captain dominating through the middle, Bale has consistently put in match-winning performances in the biggest games, up to a World Cup play-off brace featuring his seventh international free-kick goal. He has two Champions League Final winners, including – sorry, Zinedine – the best goal ever seen in a European Cup showpiece, and won a Copa del Rey Clasico Final with a mesmerising run through Barcelona’s technical area. He’d scored virtually the same goal against Iceland six weeks earlier.
Time and again, he delivers. What’s next?
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Huw was on the FourFourTwo staff from 2009 to 2015, ultimately as the magazine's Managing Editor, before becoming a freelancer and moving to Wales. As a writer, editor and tragic statto, he still contributes regularly to FFT in print and online, though as a match-going #WalesAway fan, he left a small chunk of his brain on one of many bus journeys across France in 2016.
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.