Top 50 Premier League Players of All Time: Part 2 – 40-31

by Back Page Football

The BPF Top 50 feature is back for 2015, and this time we are counting down the greatest players to have graced the Premier League since it was established in 1992.

In the second part of the countdown, we focus on two legendary Irish internationals, two sharpshooting goal getters, and a winger who overcame some early struggles to take the league by storm.

BPF Top 50 2015 teaser

View the longlist and voting process here.

Part 1

40_IRWIN-0140. Denis Irwin

Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers

Much in the same way a particular song defines an era, it also colours people’s perceptions of it.

Alan Hansen’s comment “You can’t win anything with kids” is a phrase that has become synonymous with the first great era of Premier League dominance by Manchester United and has inadvertently defined the narrative that it was Ferguson and eleven teenagers that took English football by storm.

Of course, that’s not the entire truth.

Yes, the ‘Class of ’92’ were instrumental in the domestic dominance, but that youthful verve and guile was built on a foundation of reliability – a spine of players that held it all together. And no other player represents reliability, at the highest levels, than Denis Irwin.

Alex Ferguson paid Oldham Athletic £625,000 for the 25-year-old Cork man, a not too small amount in 1990; but, with the benefit of great hindsight, it should be considered one of the Manchester United manager’s greatest ever signings.

Over the course of eleven seasons, the left-back made 368 league appearances, accumulating seven league winners medals in the process.

His reliability in defensive duties, more often than not stationed behind a very un-defensive Ryan Giggs, is what stands Irwin out from his peers – he was, as his manager called him at Old Trafford, an “8/10 player” and a “certainty” to get into Ferguson’s greatest ever team.

He wasn’t too shabby going forward too, becoming a dead-ball and penalty specialist; and memorably converted what may well be Eric Cantona’s greatest ever assist versus Tottenham Hotspur.

After Old Trafford, Irwin illustrated his undying love for playing by signing on for two more Premier League seasons with Wolverhampton Wanderers, before finally calling time on an illustrious 20 year professional career.

Charles Pulling

39_CESC-0139. Cesc Fabregas

Arsenal, Chelsea

Cesc Fabregas is the adopted child of the English Premier League as he joined Arsenal from Barcelona’s fabled La Masia academy as a scrawny teenager with goofy teeth and a disheveled mullet.

However, his talent was undeniable as he possessed technical guile way beyond his years as he was an early prototype of the modern day midfielder.

The youngster found role models in the likes of Patrick Viera and when the Frenchman left, the youngster’s career really began to take off.

He didn’t bring the boundless strength and energy the Frenchman brought but added his own blend of creative industry and vibrant youth.

Wenger put Fabregas on a path of development which would ultimately result in the Spaniard being named Arsenal’s captain.

He was Arsenal’s creative and possessional hub as he constantly desired to lead by example gifting Arsenal fans with spellbinding moments like his goal straight from the kickoff against Tottenham and being substituted on against Aston Villa to score two match winning goals and go off injured.

As all this was happening, lustful eyes from Catalonia watched eagerly as Fabregas earned interest from his boyhood club. His childhood idol Pep Guardiola was coaching them as Fabregas always sought the affection of Barcelona.

In 2011, he left for Barcelona but after what was an inspiring start, a positional change from midfielder to false-nine tainted him from taking up Xavi’s mantle. In 2014, it was time for him to leave and he returned to the one place, he truly felt at home, London.

It was with the blue of Chelsea but he continued to give weekly examples of his brilliance from his nonchalantly controlled assist to Andre Schurrle on his debut and his beautifully chipped ball to Diego Costa against former employers, Arsenal.

Fabregas is the biggest testament to Arsene Wenger’s belief and trust in youth as the scrawny teenager became a World Cup winner (providing the assist in the final), won two Euros and found some sort of closure in a trophy ladden spell with Barcelona.

He finally won the Premier League with Chelsea as he looks to cement his legacy as the Premier League’s favourite adopted son.

Chaka Simbeye

38_STAM-0138. Jaap Stam

Manchester United

As I stand in the Stretford End of Old Trafford, a pocket of fans sing out ‘Jip Jaap Stam, he’s a big Dutch man’.

Unfortunately its 2013 and there is no sign of Stam, but it just goes to show the admiration that many of the United faithful hold for the former Dutch international.

Although Stam only spent three seasons between 1998 and 2001 at Manchester United, what a glorious three seasons they were for both him and fans alike.

Stam played a pivotal role in the infamous treble winning side of 1999 as well as winning the Premier League title either side of the treble.

Unfortunately Stam’s United playing career was cut short after he made some controversial comments in his autobiography about both the club and Sir Alex Ferguson, stating that Ferguson had tapped him up and his approach to buy him was done without the permission of PSV.

In what Ferguson would later reveal as one of his biggest mistakes in his managerial career, Stam was sold to Lazio for £15 million following a confrontation between the two in the car park of a petrol station.

Just think what more could have achieved if Ferguson had acted so harshly and turned a blind eye to Stam’s controversial words.

Richard Walsh

37_SOL-0137. Sol Campbell

Arsenal, Newcastle United, Portsmouth, Tottenham Hotspur

The future Conservative Mayor of London. The tweed clad country squire off for another hunt. Or for Spurs fans the greatest traitor since Judas Iscariot.

Which image jumps into your mind when you think of Sol Campbell? Regrettably the image of one of the greatest centre-backs of his generation is not one that springs to mind immediately.

Campbell’s arrogance, occasionally abrasive nature (in additional to the jodhpurs and being the next Boris Johnson) have tended to obscure just what an impressive footballer he was, and really most great footballers need a level of arrogance and egotism to experience the very heights of the game.

It’s also easy to forget the by far the largest part of his career was spent as a Spurs. He was captain when Spurs lifted the League Cup in 1999 and many Spurs fans must have dreamed of a future central defensive partnership of Campbell and a promising young Ledley King.

It was not to be however and in the summer of 2001 Campbell made one of the most controversial transfers in the history of the Premier League, his free transfer move to North London rivals Arsenal.

Under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger Campbell would challenge for the trophies he so craved. He joined an Arsenal side that was about to witness the retirements of stalwarts like Tony Adams and then Martin Keown who had formed the hard core of Wenger’s first great side.

Campbell would not have to wait long winning the league and cup double in his debut season with the Gunners.

If anything Campbell would reach even greater heights during the 2003-04 “Invincibles” season when Arsenal went unbeaten in the league with Campbell being a leader of a new look defence featuring Jens Lehmann in goals and a usual back four of Lauren, Touré, Campbell and Cole.

Campbell’s efforts were recognised when he was named in the PFA Team of the Year for the third and final time.

During this period Campbell could have been viewed as among the very best centre backs in world football, he was possessed of all the physical attributes for the role but also possessed of pace, vision and the skill levels expected from a player in a “peak” Wenger team.

For England as well Campbell excelled, playing at six consecutive tournaments and being named in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 Teams of the Tournament.

The “Invincibles” year would be the apex of Campbell’s career, injury and loss of form would mean that first team football was harder to come by, he would only make 36 league appearances over the next two seasons, finding himself losing out to the likes of Philippe Senderos and Pascal Cygan.

It did appear that there would be one more Arsenal highlight when he put them ahead in the Champions League final against Barcelona but it was to be his last game in his first spell for Arsenal.

There was to be a swan song for Campbell at an ambitious Portsmouth under Harry Redknapp which saw Campbell captain Pompey to a FA Cup triumph, the fourth in his career.

Soon though financial reality would catch up with Portsmouth and Campbell embarked on an ill-advised move to Notts County before short spells back at Arsenal and finally Newcastle.

Gerry Farrell

36_McGrath-0136. Paul McGrath

Aston Villa

Discussing Paul McGrath’s career can often be an exercise in bemoaning unfulfilled potential. What if McGrath had not had chronic knee problems? What if he had not suffered so acutely with personal demons? Instead, we should look at McGrath as having achieved amazing success in spite of significant obstacles.

In the 1992-93 Premier League season, Ron Atkinson took charge at Villa Park and set about putting together one of the most exciting teams in the early Premier League era.

Spearheaded by Dean Saunders up front, McGrath was the side’s lynchpin in defence and led his team to a thrilling second place finish behind his former side Manchester United.

McGrath was rewarded for his fantastic form over that season with the PFA Player of the Year Award (he is still one of only two Irishmen to win that award).

It says much about McGrath’s footballing ability that this award came relatively late in his career, and in spite of dealing with both chronic injury and disruptive personal problems at this time.

McGrath’s physical build meant he could have played almost anywhere on the pitch but it was widely acknowledged that he would often be unable to train from week to week due to his knee problems and would simply play every Saturday and spend the week attempting to be ready to go again the following weekend.

McGrath was a tough tackler and engaged readily in the physical stakes of defending but his true majesty was in his reading of the game. Such was his positional awareness that at times, it felt as though he possessed the ability to duplicate himself so as to man two spaces at once.

At his imperious best, McGrath dominated entire games with his ability to anticipate and break up attacks almost at will.

Unfulfilled potential should not be a phrase we ever associate with Paul McGrath. Over-coming huge personal and physical barriers, individual and collective honours, fan adoration (Villa fans still sing his name nearly 20 years after he left the club); by almost any metric, he achieved huge amounts in a storied career and is more than deserving of his place in the BPF Top 50.

Philip Greene

35_AndyCole-0135. Andrew Cole

Blackburn Rovers, Fulham, Manchester United, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Portsmouth, Sunderland

Andy Cole first exploded on to the scene in blistering fashion with Newcastle United, under the exhilarating but ultimately doomed tutelage of Kevin Keegan.

The Magpies were promoted up to the Premier League at the end of the 92/93 season and Cole wasted absolutely no time in quickly establishing himself as one of the most devastating marksmen around, notching 34 goals in 40 games as the Geordies finished third and qualified for the UEFA Cup.

As he continued to find the net on a frighteningly regular basis, it was no surprise that Manchester United began making overtures to sign him. Alex Ferguson was determined to get his man and bolster an already impressive United attacking pack, coughing up a British record fee worth £7m to acquire his services.

Cole was an instant hit with the Old Trafford crowd, making history in scoring five goals in the 9-0 rout of Ipswich Town and immediately installing him as a Stretford End favourite. His second season – and first full campaign – proved to be stuttering as the United supporters turned their attentions to the exciting return of the King, Eric Cantona. Cole scored 14 goals in all competitions but failed to match his prolific return while at St James’ Park and was suffered a blow to his confidence as a result.

Ferguson was clearly not content with Cole’s form and sought out another striker, but failed in his pursuit of Alan Shearer. He did however, capture Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Norwegian’s arrival did push Cole down the pecking order, even before he suffered a broken leg in a reserve game against Liverpool.

But Cole wasn’t prepared to give up on the biggest club in the world just yet. The retirement of Cantona opened a door to which he duly galloped through, finishing the 97/98 season as top-scorer and earning himself a runner-up in the PFA Players’ Player of the Year.

Then came Dwight Yorke.

The Aston Villa striker was signed at the start of the 98/99 season and, alongside Cole, they formed the most feared strike partnership in European football as United triumphed in unprecedented fashion with the memorable Treble – and Cole scoring 24 goals in another profitable campaign.

It was difficult for Cole to maintain such glorious form in the years after and after he left United in 2002 for Blackburn Rovers, he gradually became something of a journeyman striker, popping up at a further seven clubs before eventually hanging up his boots in 2009.

Make no mistake though, at the peak of his powers, there was rarely a striker as clinical and confident as Cole, who took great pride in his ability to prise open defences and helped form one of the all-time attacking duos in English football. Pure class.

Matt Gault

34_MAKELELE-0134. Claude Makelele

Chelsea

It’s not often that a player is so successful that their name becomes synonymous with a role and a position on the pitch.

Claude Makelele’s talent had been obvious at a young age, but, as was typical for the player, his performances went largely unnoticed at first.

Having spent six years establishing himself with Nantes in Ligue 1, Makelele moved to Marseille and then to Spain with Celta Vigo.

It was in Spain that he truly developed into a holding midfielder and his standout performances earned him a €14 million to Real Madrid in 2000.

The honours flooded in soon after – two La Liga titles, the UEFA Champions League, the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup (now the FIFA World Club Championship) all followed.

Yet, feeling undervalued compared to the rest of the Galacticos, Makelele asked for an improved contract and was promptly sold to Chelsea. Club president Florentino Perez was adamant that Makelele wouldn’t be missed, but his star midfielder disagreed.

With David Beckham joining in the same transfer window, Zidane remarked philosophically:

Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?

Madrid’s loss was England’s gain however. Signed by Claudio Ranieri for £14 million in 2003, Makelele went on to become part of the spine of Mourinho’s first title-winning Chelsea team.

With the midfield anchored, he was able to form a crucial understanding with Frank Lampard and the team never looked back.

Makelele’s presence relieved the creative players of their defensive responsibilities and gave the side a balance that allowed them to flourish in attack.

It was not only the physical presence that made his teammates look better, but the assurance and protection he gave to the back four.

Back to back Premier League titles, in addition to the host of silverware that Chelsea went on to win, may not have happened without him.

In the 217 appearances that he made for Chelsea, Makelele’s power, strength and ability to read the game made him one of the most valued players in the British game.

His understated but flawless performances contributed hugely to the rise of a resurgent Chelsea that became a new footballing superpower.

Joseph Taylor

33_BALE-0133. Gareth Bale

Tottenham Hotspur

One of the fastest and most explosive players in the world, Gareth Bale’s time in the Premier League could be likened to a feel-good story of a man bouncing back from the brink.

The Welshman joined Tottenham Hotspur as a teenage left back with a prodigious left foot. What made young Bale so special was his contributions via his attacking forays from fullback. Gradually establishing a reputation as a set piece specialist, the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United fought for his signature when he left Southampton.

The offensive dynamo left English football on the highest of highs as a world record transfer to Real Madrid, after an excellent individual year. In that year, 2013, Bale was named the PFA Young Player Of The Year and FWA Player Of The Year.

It seems impossible that Bale was close to leaving White Hart Lane with his tail between his legs for Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City in 2009.

A damning statistic of the time was that Bale had gone 24 consecutive matches without being on the winning side for Spurs.

It was a positional switch to left wing in 2010 that proved the making of Gareth Bale. The iconic performance he delivered was that famous Champions League night in Milan against Inter – a hat-trick display colloquially dubbed “Taxi for Maicon”. The Welsh international kicked on from there and took his game to a whole new level.

He capped that off by being named the 2011 PFA Player Of The Year. The sky was the limit for Bale at that point of time, and indeed it has been. Ahead of the 2012/13 campaign, Bale switched his shirt number from 3 to 11.

With hindsight, this rather symbolically marked him breaking into the upper echelons of football. 21 goals and 9 assists in 33 appearances – 26 goals and 15 assists in 44 appearances across all competitions – signalled Bale’s arrival as one of THE stars of the Premier League.

A unique blend of pace, power, skill and undoubted professionalism, Gareth Bale was a phenomenal irresistible attacking force in the Premier League.

Mark Ooi

32_DSilva-0132. David Silva

Manchester City

Even in the dark days of the mid to late-90s, Manchester City fans were able to enjoy some fantastic playmakers; the likes of Georgi Kinkladze, Ali Benarbia and Eyal Berkovic spring to mind immediately.

However, none come close to matching the ability and impact of mercurial Spaniard David Silva who made the switch from Valencia to Eastlands for around €32 million back in the summer of 2010.

Since then, the now 29-year-old has won the Premier League twice, as well as the FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield under first Roberto Mancini and then Manuel Pellegrini.

Used as a wide player or in behind a lone striker, Silva’s guile and eye for a pass are second to none in the Premier League, and arguably the world, and he topped the assists chart with 15 in City’s title-winning campaign of 2011/12.

He for me is the best Manchester City player by a distance. I may shock people when I say that, but he always wants to go forward and he wants the ball all the time. I would have loved to have played with him.

– Thierry Henry

If you were to pick a fault in Silva’s game, it would have been his reluctance to shoot from good positions in front goal, but he addressed that in emphatic fashion last season as he bagged 12 goals in 32 Premier League games to finish as City’s second highest scorer behind Sergio Aguero.

Unfortunately for City, Silva has suffered his fair share of injuries and there is a noticeable difference in the make up of the team when he isn’t in it, testament to how integral a role he has played in the progress made by the club over the past five years.

Perhaps the greatest endorsement of any player comes from those who are on the pitch with him week in, week out, and former City striker Edin Dzeko has labelled him the best player in the Premier League, while others, including Frank Lampard, describe him as humble but great to have in the dressing room.

The diminutive Silva has left a lasting impression on the Premier League, and will go down as one of the greatest City players of all time.

Neil Sherwin

31_SEAMAN-0131. David Seaman

Arsenal, Manchester City

There isn’t a more memorable footballer in the history of the Premier League with a mustache and a pony tail than David Seaman.

However, it isn’t just his looks that made him distinguishable from the many goal keepers that have graced the league but it’s Seaman’s undeniable quality that stand out.

Even though Seaman ended his career at Manchester City, it was his time at Arsenal that experts and fans alike, will best remember his contribution to the league.

Signed by George Graham back in 1990 and the fee paid was the largest ever forked out then for a keeper.

The result was almost immediate as Seaman helped The Gunners to recapture the title in the 1990/91 season, conceding only 18 games with the keeper playing in every single one of those matches.

The England international repeated and bettered that feat in the 1998/99 season, conceding 17 goals in the entire season.

The doubters will certainly point to the fact that Seaman played behind arguably the best defence the league has ever seen with the likes of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn providing the protective shield.

Yet if the question are raised to them, the same compliment would be extended to the man behind them.

Seaman was a beacon of consistency, even when the rule changed to outlaw keepers collecting back passes with their hands, he still wasn’t fazed by the challenge. An excellent shot-stopper with immaculate positioning, Seaman is remembered by some for his howlers but only because they are few and far in between.

What Arsenal fans won’t give to have a young David Seaman in the lean years before the signing of Petr Cech.

Ooi Kina Fai

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