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.
There is strong Manchester influence in the third part of the countdown with both blue and red very well represented, while one of the most decorated full backs in modern times is also included.
View the longlist and voting process here.
30. Gary Neville
If it is possible for a player with 85 international caps, eight Premier League titles, and two Champions League winners’ medals to be underrated, then Gary Neville is that man.
As a key member of the vaunted ‘Class of ’92’, expectations at Old Trafford were high for the Youth Cup winning captain. And The Bury-born full-back did not disappoint, going on to make over 600 first team appearances and becoming club captain in 2005.
What Neville achieved during his near two decades in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team was, without question, remarkable.
But ask anyone who followed the Premier League during his career for their thoughts on the older Neville brother and they might not be so complimentary.
Whether it was kicking Arsenal’s José Antonio Reyes off the park in 2004, or celebrating in front of the away fans after a last-gasp victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford in 2006, Neville was regularly United’s chief antagonist. Adored by the United faithful, the life-long Red Devil was less popular outside the Theatre of Dreams.
However, to summarise Neville’s career in such a way would be to undermine his technical ability.
In addition to his sound positional instincts and ability to read the game, Neville also developed into one of the most cultured crossers in the Premier League; he perfected the art of swinging over beautifully arced centres that begged to be gobbled up by the likes of Dwight Yorke or Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Neville played his final game on New Year’s Day 2011, away to West Brom. Having struggled through the first 45 minutes, the 35-year-old was substituted at half-time. It was at this moment that England’s most capped right-back knew he could no longer perform at the highest level and decided to call it a career.
“I am disappointed that my playing days are at an end,” read Neville’s statement on United’s official website. “However, it comes to us all and it’s knowing when that time is and for me that time is now.”
And with that, Neville stepped away from the game with clarity and self-awareness of a man with nothing left to achieve, nothing left to prove.
29. Ashley Cole
Ashley Cole wasn’t the first footballer to find his private life splashed across all forms of media, but his treatment was similar to that of a soap-opera villain. Even your Nanna had an opinion on him.
The future ‘Invincible’ started his career with Arsenal in 1999, soon rising up the ranks to be Arsene Wenger’s star student, and the first elite English player to be brought through under the Frenchman’s stewardship.
Cole would play for the Gunners 156 times in the league, scoring eight goals and having a hand in many more, as he formed a lethal trident with Robert Pires and Thierry Henry on the left wing.
As the era of all-powerful football agents took hold, Cole went one step too far. The FA certainly seemed to think so anyway, handing him a £100k fine after he and agent Jonathan Barnett were wined and dined by Jose Mourinho, whilst Cole was still an Arsenal employee.
A year later, £5 million and William Gallas took Cole’s place at the newly-opened Emirates Stadium. One the greatest bargains in Chelsea history.
At Stamford Bridge he had relentless battles with some of best wingers in the world, including Cristiano Ronaldo as Chelsea fought Manchester United for domestic and European titles. In 2009-10 Cole added a third Premier League medal to the two he acquired at Arsenal.
He ended his eight-year stay at Chelsea with a further 229 league appearances, as well as winners medals from the Champions League, and a record seven from the FA Cup.
Sorry then Nanna, but I’ll have to go with the opinion of somebody who knows a thing or two about being a full-back.
There’s no doubt in my mind he’s the best left-back ever to play for England.
– Stuart Pearce, 2010
28. Xabi Alonso
Not much was known of Rafael Benitez when he arrived on British shores; having departed UEFA Cup winners Valencia ready to take Liverpool to higher levels than his predecessors could manage.
Even less was known of Xabi Alonso, a young central midfield player he brought with him from the Spanish leagues.
The fresh-faced, soft spoken Spaniard cost over £10 million from Real Sociedad.
He had begun his career there, playing regularly in the Spanish top flight prior to Benitez plucking him from Sociedad and into one of the most famous clubs in the world.
It wasn’t long before his calm ball control, audacious long range passing and silky midfield play gripped the Liverpool fans and Premier League spectators.
Alonso was adored in his five seasons at Anfield, forming a formidable midfield threesome with first Steven Gerrard and Didi Hamann and soon Gerrard and Javier Mascherano – playing the calm influencer to the gung-ho attacks of Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
He’ll be most remembered for his goals from within his own half, first scoring against Luton Town in the FA Cup and then knocking it over Newcastle’s Steve Harper from his side of the centre circle in 2006.
The World Cup and European Championship winner played 143 Premier League games for the Merseysiders, his consistency and class forever cementing him as a league legend.
The fact Real Madrid took him from us is proof of that.
He left the league without a league medal, but did deliver a magnificent Champions League winners medal to Anfield hearts – scoring in the final, the goal that completed the 3-3 comeback.
The league has seen few passers with the class and craftiness of Xabi Alonso, a rare type of player which we didn’t get long enough to enjoy.
27. Sergio Aguero
It’s been three and a half years since Sergio Aguero scored that goal against Queens Park Rangers but you will struggle to find a Manchester City fan who doesn’t get goose bumps watching it again…and again…and again.
To base such a wonderful player’s lasting legacy on a single moment might be a bit unfair but it’s no coincidence that City’s first top flight title in 44 years came at the end of the Argentine striker’s first season at the club as he tore the Premier League apart, scoring 23 times in 34 games.
Aguero arrived in Manchester after a hugely successful spell at Atletico Madrid in Spain where he was appointed joint vice-captain of the club aged just 22 and formed a strong partnership with Diego Forlan.
City shelled out £38 million to secure his services, and Aguero hit the ground running with a goal on debut against Swansea City following his second half entrance as a substitute.
After finishing runners-up to rivals Manchester United, City claimed their second Premier League title in 2014 but injuries restricted Aguero to just 23 appearances (and he still managed to score 17 times).
Unfortunately Aguero has spent a lot of time on the sideline in his four and a bit seasons at City, though doesn’t seem to have deterred Real Madrid who are linked with a move for him during every transfer window.
Behind a cheeky grin and boyish good looks is a player whose drive and determination is evident every time he takes to the field, and his work rate for a striker is up there with the likes of countryman Carlos Tevez.
Last season, he claimed the league’s Golden Boot thanks scoring 26 times and to date has netted 84 goals in 128 Premier League games.
City fans have been truly blessed to have watched the now 27-year-old during his peak years, and no doubt there is still plenty more to come.
26. Yaya Toure
Yaya Touré has undoubtedly been one of the premium central midfielders of the Premier League since his 24 million move to Manchester City in 2010. The Ivorian powerhouse left Barcelona as a defensive midfielder who had shown in flashes the potential to make positive contributions in attack.
In his first year at City, Touré scored the winner in both the semi-finals (a man-of-the-match display against Manchester United) and the final (against Stoke City) of the FA Cup. Playing ahead of the holding duo of Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong, Touré had the freedom of movement previously restricted at Barcelona, not that there’s any shame in that with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
An FA Cup triumph to end City’s 35-year trophy drought marked a great start to his Premier League career.
Over the years, the Ivorian might not have been excellent from matchday 1 through to matchday 38; however, what matters most is that he has come up with the goods when City have most needed him to. He put in an authoritative midfield performance in a crucial 1-0 win in a Manchester derby in 2012 which turned the title race back in City’s favour.
Since then he has produced innumerable match-winning displays, often marked by composed finishes after swashbuckling runs, powering past opponents like they weren’t there. Touré’s stunning long-range curler in the 2013 League Cup final springs to mind as another magical moment. A blemish on his record would be the loss to Wigan Athletic in the 2013 FA Cup final.
Even so, Touré has impressively done a clean sweep of the domestic trophies on offer. Touré’s honours list in England reads as – two Premier League titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and twice named in the PFA Team Of The Year. A long-awaited African Cup Of Nations in January 2015 has made all his mid-season absences on international duty worth it.
At 1.88m, Touré is extremely well-built yet he possesses the deftness of touch usually associated with players of a much more diminutive stature. Operating in holding midfield in a double pivot or further forward as an attacking midfielder, Touré has been the most impressive goalscoring midfielder since Frank Lampard’s golden years at Chelsea.
He has developed into something of a free kick specialist, displaying an exquisite level of finesse at free kicks, where it seems as if he caresses the ball rather than strike it. The City number 42’s formidable blend of power, athleticism, technique and intelligence has made him one of the best players in the Premier League since his debut against Tottenham Hotspur.
The move to Manchester has truly liberated Yaya Touré from his defensive midfield shackles, giving English football one of the most mercurial of performers in the history of the Premier League.
25. Robbie Fowler
Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester City
Not many people earn the nickname God. One man did earn that nickname for his exploits on Merseyside. That tells you all you need to know about Robbie Fowler.
The Toxteth-born striker lived the dreams of many Liverpudlians, playing over 260 games in two spells for his boyhood club. A lethal finisher, Fowler scored over 186 goals during an illustrious career.
In truth, Fowler probably doesn’t get the credit or acknowledgment his talents deserve. His first 13 games for Liverpool yielded 12 goals, a remarkable record for a young striker just bursting onto the scene.
The next season, Fowler was an ever-present in the Liverpool side, winning the League Cup and recording the fastest ever hat-trick in the Premiership in a game against Arsenal (until broken by Saido Mane in 2015).
Fowler won the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1995 and 1996, the only player along with Giggs and Rooney to do so. He continued to earn a reputation as the country’s most lethal finisher, as well as being a key part of Liverpool’s infamous Spice-Boys group.
The striker left Liverpool in 2001, moving to Leeds United. He had fallen out with Phil Thompson and had been dropped by manager Gerard Houllier as a result.
Michael Owen and Emile Heskey established themselves as the Frenchman’s first choice striker partnership, leaving Fowler frustrated in the wings. It should never have been allowed to happen, and the man they called God’s career suffered as a result.
Robbie Fowler only managed 26 games for England, a result of unfortunate timing of his talents. Whilst Fowler was undoubtedly the best finisher in England, he had to compete with the likes of Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Michael Owen up front.
I have little doubt that if Fowler was in his prime now, he would be one of England’s leading players.
24. Ruud van Nistelrooy
Surprisingly only 12 months later after suffering the dreaded cruciate knee curse which left him out injured for an entire year, Ruud van Nistelrooy moved to Manchester United amid a wave of optimism amongst United supporters. However United fans had every right to be hopeful of expecting great things from the former Dutch international with his goal scoring record at PSV standing at a pulsating 75 goals in 91 games.
With a lot of quality up front with players like Solskjaer, Sheringham, Cole and Yorke still at the club, van Nistelrooy came to United facing a lot of competition to make the starting 11, however it soon became apparent that van Nistelrooy was going to be Ferguson’s main man and quickly became a goal scoring machine and an Old Trafford fan favourite.
With many great moments in a red shirt, his finest moment for me was the 02/03 season. At the beginning of March, Arsenal sat eight points clear of United at the top of the table and United looked a long way off title-winners after a very dodgy Christmas period.
But in typical post-Christmas fashion, United went on to finish the season unbeaten with Van Nistelrooy at the forefront.
Van Nistelrooy scored in each of the final eight games of the season, pipping Henry to the Golden Boot and helping United win the title which was subsequently the only title of his United career.
In that season he was also named the best striker in Europe after scoring an astonishing 12 Champions League goals.
Van Nistelrooy left Old Trafford like so many others before and after him amid speculation of a falling out with Ferguson and was sold to Real Madrid in 2006.
His United career, although short, had accumulated quite an impressive goal scoring record of 150 goals in 219 appearances.
He also currently holds the record of most consecutive Premier League matches scored in with 10 goals but that may not be true for much longer with the unbelievable form Jamie Vardy currently finds himself in.
23. Rio Ferdinand
Leeds United, Manchester United, Queens Park Rangers, West Ham United
Eltham Town’s coach David Goodwin once told his star attacking midfielder:
I’m going to call you Pele son – I like the way you play.
Rio Ferdinand’s talent had been obvious at a young age, but his physique saw him marked out by scouts as the ideal centre back.
Blessed with immense pace and the ability to bring the ball out from the back, Ferdinand swiftly graduated from the Academy of Football and established himself at the heart of the West Ham defence.
In only his second season as a regular in the first team, he was voted “Hammer of the Year” and became the youngest defender to debut for the England national team when he received his first cap.
His standout performances caught the attention of other clubs, and he joined Leeds United in November 2000 for £18 million, becoming the most expensive defender in world football – a record that he again broke upon signing for Manchester United in 2002 for an estimated cost of £34 million.
The fee was huge, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s judgement looked to have let him down just over a year later when Ferdinand missed a drugs test at United’s Carrington training ground and was handed an eight-month ban at both club and national level.
Ferguson however was unphased, and kept faith with the under fire defender.
Ferdinand became an integral part of the Manchester United defence, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he was able to enjoy his best football. Paired with newly recruited Serbian stalwart Nemanja Vidic they established a formidable partnership at the heart of Ferguson’s United side.
Having captained his team to victory in the 2008 Champions League Final, Ferdinand was then instrumental in United keeping a record 21 clean sheets en-route to a Premier League and League Cup double in the 2008-09 season.
Injuries gradually began to take their toll and Ferdinand lost his physical edge, but his ability to position himself in the right place at the right time was still apparent right up until his retirement in October 2014.
Controversies aside, he will be remembered as Manchester United’s finest defender in the Premier League era.
22. Petr Cech
For managers, goalkeepers are, in many ways, the hardest position to fill. Recollect the post-Schmeichel period at Old Trafford to see how even a club of Manchester United’s size can struggle to find a player of the requisite skills to guard the net.
If a club gets it wrong, it often goes wrong very quickly and very visibly; but get it right and the rewards can last for nearly a decade.
This is why Chelsea’s fans, players and managers – in particular Jose Mourinho – should thank current Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, because it was the ‘Tinker man’ who signed Petr Cech from Rennes in 2004.
Good goalkeepers are reliable, great goalkeepers actively win you points over a season; but the truly outstanding goalkeepers become totems, intrinsic components of a team’s spine – thats what Petr Cech became for Chelsea. And all for the frankly absurd price of a mere seven million pounds.
In his first full season at Stamford Bridge, aged just 23-years old, Cech broke the record for minutes without concede – keeping the net unbeaten for 1,025 minutes. It would come to define Cech’s career at Chelsea – spectacular reliability.
Chelsea’s most successful period would come to be defined by five names – Terry, Lampard, Drogba, Mourinho and Cech. The 6.5 ft shot-stopper became part of a winning spine. An institution.
The injury sustained against Reading in 2006 didn’t just threaten to ruin the Czech international’s season, it could have very well ended his life. Despite initially grim predictions, Cech was back in action four months later, sporting a now iconic rugby style skull cap.
Even more intrinsic than before, the Chelsea keeper went onto make 333 Premier League appearances, winning the Premier League four times, the Premier League Golden Glove award three times and being named Chelsea’s player of the year in 2011.
With the emergence of Thibaut Courtois at Stamford Bridge threatening his chances of regular football, Cech requested a transfer and, in part due to the good will he had engendered at the club, was granted a move to Arsenal this summer.
Arsene Wenger, not known for his lavish spending, parted with £10 million to bring the 33-year old to The Emirates.
Cech currently holds the Premier League record for clean sheets – at the time of writing 172. With first team football secured and more than a few seasons still left in the tank it may be a while before anyone beats it.
21. Robert Pires
Arsenal, Aston Villa
Arsenal have had a long lineage of employing word class wingers exciting fans with their unique skills. David Rocastle, Mark Overmars and Robert Pires are to name a few as they are all very different players but were equally important to the teams they were in.
Robert Pires was a star before he joined Arsenal in 2000, winning a World Cup and European Championship with the French National Team. Pires, arrived at Arsenal to fill a Marc Overmars shaped hole when the Dutchman moved onto Barcelona.
It was the archetypal Wenger type deal as Overmars moved to Catalonia for £25 million while Pires joined from Marseille for £6 million.
The Frenchman initially found it hard to adjust to the rough and tumble style of Premier League football but when he did, he didn’t look back.
Him and Thierry Henry were as thick as thieves as Henry frequently shifted out wide to Pires’ left wing to create trouble for defenders.
Pires was a winger who rarely relied on pace as his boundless technique and grace on the ball allowed him to discomfort even the sturdiest of defenders.
His unique style of prodding the ball down the flank with the outside of his right foot was like watching poetry in motion as he glided into the nightmares of many fullbacks tasked with marking him.
Pires also developed a penchant for the extraordinary as sublime goals against bitter North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur were only testament to his incredible eye for goal.
He was a pivotal part of the Invincibles team that won the Premier League without losing. Pires won another league title with Arsenal while winning four FA Cups.
In the 2001/02 season, he also won the Football Writers Player of the Year.
He is one of the Premier League’s greatest bargains as he constantly tormented defences with his brand of sophisticated flair in arguably, Arsenal’s greatest team.