With the Premier League celebrating its 25-year anniversary, now seems as good a time as any to put together a starting eleven of the best players that the league has had to offer.
The financial boom that the Premier League facilitated (not least thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals and broadcasting contracts) have allowed English clubs to both sign and create some of the best talents in the world over the past quarter of a century.
Narrowing it down to eleven is a thankless task and there are many different interpretations of who should be included, but here’s who we have narrowed it down to:
Peter Schmeichel – A relatively close-run thing with Petr Cech, but it had to be Schmeichel. As the original superstar Premier League goalkeeper, the Danish legend was instrumental in Manchester United’s five league title wins (and the rest) in his time at Old Trafford. Spells at Aston Villa and Man City were solid if unspectacular, but his Man United career makes him a shoo-in as the best Premier League goalkeeper.
Gary Neville – The most consistent right-back of his generation. A mainstay in the wildly successful Man United sides under Alex Ferguson, the ex-England international made 400 league appearances (all for the one club) and a trophy haul that is the envy of pretty much every other Premier League footballer. The Nevile that Phil wishes he could be.
John Terry – Love him or loathe him, John Terry is a certified league legend. Even when Chelsea hit the financial jackpot in 2003, Terry was unmoved. He was the undisputed leader of the Blues all throughout the most successful period of their history, with five Premier League medals to his name across nearly two decades. The “Lionheart” angle may have been seriously over-exaggerated at times, but that shouldn’t take away from the skill, tenacity and awareness he showed as a defender.
Rio Ferdinand – Ferdinand formed one of the best defensive partnerships that the league has ever seen with Nemanja Vidic, but his longevity gives him the edge over the Serbian. Twice the British transfer record was broken to sign him (£18m by Leeds in 2000 and £30m by Man United in 2002), and his style of play was so far removed from the traditional English approach (i.e. obsessed with physicality and “hoofing it”) that it blazed a trail for a new generation of ball-playing centre-backs in the country.
Ashley Cole – Again, a player whose personality should not come into this (*swerves off road*). In purely playing terms, Cole is arguably the best left-back England has ever produced, and at his peak was undeniably world-class. As strong going forward as he was at the back, Cole was just as home in Arsenal’s Invincibles side as he was in Jose Mourinho’s all-conquering Chelsea team. His controversial transfer from the former to the latter left a bad taste in the mouths of many, but that should not take away from his achievements in the game.
Roy Keane – What can be said about Keane that hasn’t already? The combative warrior of that first wave of Man United success under Alex Ferguson, the former Ireland captain could drag his side up by the scruff of the neck and lead them to win matches that they thought were long gone. Perhaps his crowning glory in a Man United shirt was that Champions League semi-final against Juventus, but in terms of his league performances, Keane was the all-action midfield lieutenant in a team full of other superstars. It’s just a shame that his Old Trafford career ended as sourly as it did.
Patrick Vieira – Vieira’s aggression was coupled with the competitive arrogance and touch of flair one would expect from a French player taught by Arsene Wenger in that Arsenal side. Though he may not have had Keane’s commandeering attitude, he made up for it with super athleticism and ability to close the opposition midfield down in a heartbeat. Vieira was just as vital a cog to Wenger’s Arsenal as Keane was to Ferguson’s Man United. Not better, not worse – just different.
Frank Lampard – One of the greatest midfield talents of his generation, Lampard became the archetypal versatile midfielder. Though he wasn’t necessarily a number ten by design (in fact his defensive ability was also to be lauded), his attacking instincts were fantastic – and the fact that is Chelsea’s all-time leading goalscorer speaks volumes. England may never have been able to get the best out of him (the endless ‘can he play with Steven Gerrard?’ debates saw to that) but as a Premier League player, he was exceptional.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Though he went on to be the muscle-clad goalscoring cyborg we all know and love/hate (delete as appropriate), Ronaldo was well on his way to world domination at Old Trafford. His career trajectory from a slow start to the blistering talent that became (in a relatively short period of time) is a testament to his own hard work and dedication, and after his Ballon d’Or win in 2008 it was no surprise when Real Madrid came calling to smash the world transfer record to sign him soon after.
Thierry Henry – Henry arrived to little fanfare in the 1999/2000 season, but he left North London a king eight years later. When Arsene Wenger brought Henry to Highbury, he looked lost as a player. His early promise at Monaco had been dulled at Juventus, and the experiment to turn him into a winger had failed. Wenger moved him back to the centre of the attack, and the results were mesmeric. Henry is one of (if the outright) finest strikers of the Premier League era – and a record of 175 in 258 games tells you everything you need to know.
Alan Shearer – The league’s all-time top scorer, Shearer was an absolute goal machine for years. At one point he was the most expensive player of all time when Newcastle poached him from Blackburn (for less than Watford will end up paying Burnley for Andre Grey, for all of you “game’s gone” fans) and although his exploits didn’t get the medal recognition they truly deserved (they could have, but he turned Man United down), a return of 260 league goals in 441 games is staggering.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish Football Podcast, we chat to former Bray Wanderers media officer Jillian Godsil, give our take on the ‘barstooler’ debate as well as review and preview the latest League of Ireland action.