Ranked! The 25 best British players of all time

Best British players of all time, featuring Gareth Bale
(Image credit: Future)

The best British players of all time have very little in common. Ask them their nationality… and you might get half a dozen answers.

That makes this the impossible job. Far more difficult than managing one of these individual nations: how can you compare players across eras – but equally, across achievements? The expectation of a Northern Irish player is so much different to that of an English one, for a start. 

So we've ranked them by what they've done for their individual nation and how that compares to one another. We've put them into some kind of combined table – so who would you put top?

The 25 best British players of all time

The individual lists:

Ranked! The 25 best English players ever
Ranked! The 10 best Northern Irish players ever
Ranked! The 10 best Scottish players ever
Ranked! The 10 best Welsh players ever

25. Gary Lineker

Gary Lineker

Gary Lineker scores for England (Image credit: Getty)

England’s principle attacking threat in the latter half of the 80s, Lineker has scored more World Cup goals than any other Three Lions player – and scooped the Golden Boot at the 1986 tournament.

Famously never booked, the current Match of the Day anchor’s club career took him from boyhood club Leicester to Everton, Barcelona, Spurs – with whom he won the FA Cup in 1991 – and Japanese outfit Nagoya Grampus Eight.

24. Billy McNeill

Billy McNeill

Billy McNeill leads out Celtic (Image credit: Getty Images)

Cesar was a giant of a man, on and off the pitch. He is arguably the most influential player in Celtic’s history, having played nearly 500 times for The Hoops and amassing 23 trophies. 

Not least captaining them to the European Cup in 1967, when they became the first British club to lift the trophy. 

23. Billy Meredith

Billy Meredith of Manchester United in action during the first ever FA Charity Shield match against Queens Park Rangers. Following a 1-1 draw, United won 4-0 in the replay.

Billy Meredith of Manchester United in action during the first ever FA Charity Shield match against Queens Park Rangers (Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

22. Harry Kane

Harry Kane applauds the England fans after the Three Lions 2-0 win over Ukraine in March 2023.

Harry Kane applauds the England fans after beating Ukraine (Image credit: Getty Images)

Undoubtedly one of the very best strikers on the planet right now, Harry Kane is also already in the history books.

2023 marked the marksman breaking the all-time scoring record for Tottenham before doing the same with England weeks later. Alan Shearer’s longstanding record of 260 Premier League goals also ought to be within his reach before he retires. 

21. Danny Blanchflower

Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland footballer, Danny Blanchflower, holding the European Cup Winners Cup outside Tottenham Town Hall during a civic reception.

Danny Blanchflower, holding the European Cup Winners Cup outside Tottenham Town Hall (Image credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

The Spurs legend also achieved the status for his country. Blanchflower captained Northern Ireland to the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup, and he was also the first player in Northern Ireland history to reach over 50 caps. He was the country’s sporting poster boy before George Best came along. 

20. Neville Southall


Neville Southall in action for Wales (Image credit: Getty)

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.

19. Alan Shearer

Alan Shearer, England - Euro 96

Alan Shearer at Euro 96 (Image credit: PA Images)

Unstoppably prolific at his peak, Shearer won the Premier League Golden Boot in 1994/95, 1995/96 and 1996/97 – firing Blackburn to the title as one half of the ‘SAS’ partnership with Chris Sutton in the former.

A legend at Ewood Park and even more so at boyhood club Newcastle – where he spent the last decade of his career – he found the net 30 times in 63 games for England, including five to finish as top scorer at Euro 96.

18. Jim Baxter

Jim Baxter

Jim Baxter in action for Scotland (Image credit: PA)

Quite simply, a born entertainer. One of the most talented players Scotland has ever produced. 

‘Slim Jim’ is perhaps best known for his role in the 3-2 win over then-world champions England, which included him winding up the home crowd and opposition by doing keepy-ups in open play. Baxter secured 10 trophies for Rangers during a successful five-year spell in the 60s, and was blessed with rare technical ability.  

17. David Beckham

David Beckham

David Beckham in action at the 2002 World Cup (Image credit: Getty)

For over a decade, Beckham was the face of the England team – captaining them for six years and making headlines for reasons good (that free-kick against Greece) and bad (that red card against Argentina).

Synonymous with pinpoint crosses and laser-guided set-piece deliveries, he turned out almost 400 times for Manchester United – with whom he won six league titles and the Champions League – before spells with Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and PSG.

16. Pat Jennings

Pat Jennings

Pat Jennings during the 1986 World Cup (Image credit: Getty)

Jennings played in both of Northern Ireland’s World Cup campaigns of the 1980s, and at the time was the oldest player to appear in one, at the age of 41 at Mexico ’86. 

Jennings was inducted into the English Hall of Fame in 2003 and is considered Northern Ireland’s greatest ever goalkeeper – but for many, he's one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, of any nationality, able to pluck the ball out of the sky with one hand during his peak. 

15. Mark Hughes

Bayern Munich

Mark Hughes during his stint at Bayern Munich (Image credit: Getty Images)

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. Committed, eh?

14. Paul Gascoigne

1990 World Cup Semi Final match the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, Italy. West Germany 1 v England 1 (west Germany won on penalties). England's Paul Gascoigne steps away from Klaus Augenthaler (left) and Lothar Mattheus during the match watched by Peter Beardsley, 4th July 1990.

Paul Gascoigne in action against Germany at Italia 90 (Image credit: Arnold Slater/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

A supremely talented player and an equally brilliant character, ‘Gazza’ was the great entertainer of the England team throughout the 90s – not least when football came home at Euro 96.

From tears in Turin to that glorious goal against Scotland (followed by one of his various notable celebrations, the ‘dentist’s chair’), his was career – which, at club level, saw him turn out for local team Newcastle, Spurs, Lazio, Rangers and more – full of indelible moments.

13. Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs at the 2012 Olympic Games (Image credit: Getty)

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.

12. Gordon Banks

Gordon Banks

Gordon Banks during the 1970 World Cup (Image credit: PA)

They said he was as ‘safe as the Banks of England’ – and if you’ve seen his ‘save of the century’ from Pele at the 1970 World Cup, you’ll understand why (if, somehow, you haven’t, correct that right away).

The man between the sticks for England’s finest hour – their 1966 World Cup triumph, of course – was named FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year six years in a row between 1966 and 1971, while the IFFHS ranked him as the second-best ‘keeper of the 20th century – behind only Lev Yashin.

11. Ian Rush

Ian Rush

Ian Rush in action for Liverpool (Image credit: PA)

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.

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Tom Hancock started freelancing for FourFourTwo in April 2019 and has also written for The Analyst and When Saturday Comes, among others. He supports Wycombe Wanderers and has a soft spot for Wealdstone. A self-confessed statto, he has been known to watch football with a spreadsheet (or several) open...

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