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.
We’re now heading towards the business end of the countdown, and out of ten players previewed in this part, only one has played for more than one team in the English top flight.
View the longlist and voting process here.
20. David Beckham
Leading man looks, popstar wife, photogenic family, multimillion-pound sponsorship deals: David Beckham is the man who has it all. But make no mistake, everything that Beckham achieved on the football pitch was a result of good, old-fashioned, hard work.
Growing up in London, Beckham was a huge Manchester United fan. Courted as a teenager by local clubs such as Leyton Orient and Tottenham, the youngster signed schoolboy forms for the club he supported on his 14th birthday.
He went on to make 394 appearances for United, winning a magnitude of honours including the famous Treble in 1999.
Beckham became known for his long-range passing, precision crossing, and deadly free kicks. These abilities can undoubtably be attributed to hours of work on the training field: he could often be found pinging free kicks through a bicycle tyre suspended from the crossbar.
Beckham’s story is also one of overcoming adversity.
A petulant flick against Diego Simeone’s calves, a dramatic fall from the Argentinian midfielder, and a red card for Beckham. England, down to 10 men, lose a penalty shootout and are eliminated from the 1998 World Cup.
The Manchester United man became public enemy number one overnight. The Daily Mirror print a dartboard with his face on it. An effigy of Beckham is hung in front of a London pub ahead of United’s first away match of 98/99 season against West Ham.
Fast forward three years to Old Trafford, October 6, 2001. England need only a draw against Greece to secure qualification to the 2002 World Cup, but with 93 minutes played, the Three Lions trail 2-1.
A free kick 30 yards from goal represents the last vestige of hope for the 60,000-plus fans biting their nails inside the Theatre of Dreams.
Beckham, now England captain, having covered more than 16 kilometres during the game, stands over the ball. He takes a breath, begins his run-up, and curls an inch-perfect strike into the top corner. No bicycle tyre required. England qualify and all is forgiven.
After leaving Old Trafford in 2003, Beckham went on to represent Real Madrid, Los Angeles Galaxy and AC Milan, before calling time on his career after a short spell with Paris St-Germain.
The Parisians allowed Beckham to captain the side in his final outing, demonstrating the high regard in which he is held throughout the footballing world.
19. Matthew Le Tissier
Any footballer who can say he’s called “Le God” by his club’s fans has done well in his career. Matt Le Tissier joined the Southampton youth academy aged 17 and has gone on to be one of the best players in the club’s history.
Being named the PFA Young Player of the Year in the 1989/90 season, marked a strong start to his professional career. Things were on the up and only got better from there.
The Guernsey-born Englishman was named Premier League Player of the Month in December (an award he would again win in October 1996) and ended that 1994/95 campaign in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
Along the way toward that honour, Le God also picked up a certain “English Football Goal of the Season”.
Receiving the ball a few yards inside the Blackburn Rovers half, Le Tissier drove forward. After twisting and turning his way past his marker, he hit the most brilliant of shots – a 40-yard chip over the Blackburn goalkeeper Tim Flowers.
That goal was a sublime effort and, with hindsight, is only one of the many magical moments that Le Tissier has blessed the football world with.
More than a scorer of great goals, Le Tissier was also a great goalscorer – he was the first midfielder in Premier League history to hit the 100 goals mark. Le God ended his professional career as the second highest league goalscorer in Southampton history on 161 goals.
Le Tissier’s goal record should not be surprising, as he time and again showcased his technical ability in games as well as his nerves of steel from the penalty spot.
He was a premium penalty specialist and famously holds the statistic of having scored 47 of his 48 spot kick taken.
Le Tissier might not have the most impressive of trophy hauls at team level, just the one runner-up medal from a 3-2 extra time defeat to Nottingham Forest in the now-defunct Full Members Cup in 1992.
In 2013, the Southampton legend was named in the English Football Hall of Fame. His international career at senior level spanned only 8 caps, though he should have received many more.
What Matt Le Tissier was, what his legacy is, is an exceptional midfielder with great technical ability who brought joy to those who played with him and those who watched him play from the stands or on the television.
Don’t just take my word for it, take Xavi’s:
His talent was simply was simply out of the norm. He could dribble past 7 or 8 players but without speed . He just walked past them. For me, he was sensational.
18. Wayne Rooney
Everton, Manchester United
In October 2002, exactly five days before his 17th birthday, Wayne Rooney introduced himself to the Premier League by scoring a last-gasp winner against Arsenal.
His special strike was significant in a couple of ways as it not only ended Arsenal’s 30-match unbeaten run but also made Rooney the youngest ever goal-scorer in Premier League’s history.
He scored six Premier League goals in his first full season, where three of those were decisive winners. He finished the season with eight goals in all completion and also managed to win two distinctive awards: BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year in 2002 and Bravo Award in 2003.
The following season was even more fruitful where Rooney netted nine in the league and Everton didn’t lose any of the game in which he had scored.
In August 2004, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Rooney after playing the highest ever fee for a player under 20 years. Later in September when Rooney made his United debut against Fenerbahce in the Champions League, there was legendary written all over it.
He began his United career by scoring a hat-trick and assisting another. Rooney finished the season as club’s top-scorer in both league and all competitions.
Individual success also followed in the form of PFA Young Player of the Year award and also winning the 2004 Golden Boy award.
In the preceding season (2005/06) Rooney grabbed three awards: PFA Young Player of the Year, PFA Fans’ Player of the Year & also Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year.
After winning his first trophy in the same season, he then went on to win three consecutive Premier League titles in the following seasons (2006-07, 2007/08 and 2008/09). During this Rooney also become the third youngest player of all-time to score 50 Premier League goals.
In the 2009-10 season, United narrowly and rather controversially missed out on a fourth successive league title at the expense of an offside winner that Chelsea struck at Old Trafford.
But Wayne Rooney had another fantastic season, netting 26 in the league as he ran out winner of five awards, namely PFA Players’ Player of the Year, PFA Fans’ Player of the Year, Football Writers’ Player of the Year, Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year and the most important of all Premier League Player of the Season award.
He played a key part and was hugely influential in helping United win two more titles to become the most successful club in English football history. He has won the Premier League Player of the Month award five times, bettered only by Gerrard.
Over the years he has been named in Premier League Team of the Year three times. The fact that Alan Shearer is now the only player to have scored more Premier League goals than him, speaks for the greatness of Wayne Rooney.
In terms of most top-flight goals before the age of 30 years, Rooney top the chart with 187 followed by Alan Shearer 176 and Thierry Henry 174.
With five Premier League titles to his name, and as the second highest goal-scorer in the history of the league, Rooney is undoubtedly one of the greatest of the game.
17. Gianfranco Zola
Put very simply, Zola was , and still is, one of the most loved imports to the Premier League, irrespective of club loyalties.
The diminutive Italian signed for Ruud Gullit’s Chelsea from Napoli in November 1996 and he became an instant hero for the Stamford Bridge faithful, forming an excellent partnership with fellow Italian Gianluca Vialli and netting 12 goals in his debut season.
His highlight of the 1996-97 campaign was an outrageous goal against Manchester United, dancing majestically around both Dennis Irwin and Gary Pallister, before slipping the ball past a helpless Peter Schmeichel.
In the season that followed, Zola continued to operate as Chelsea’s magician-in-chief, with a consistent array of sublime goals, the curler against Liverpool and the drag back and finish versus Wimbledon both in 1997 were particular stand out moments.
He capped off his remarkable debut campaign by being voted FWA Player of the Year, the first Chelsea player to win it.
Despite his on-pitch brilliance, Zola is best remembered for his humility and his unwavering determination not to let his stature be a hindrance to his ability.
The greatest Zola moment, in my opinion, came in 2002, towards the end of his time in West London during a FA Cup tie against Norwich City.
From routine near post corner, Zola managed to incredibly flick the ball between his own legs into the net, a feat made even more difficult by the fact he was in mid-air at the time.
That moment was a gentle reminder of his remaining quality, despite his lack of game time under then manager Claudio Ranieri.
In 2002/03, Zola played his final season with the Blues and helped them reach the Champions League with 16 goals, a Chelsea high for the Italian.
At the end of the season Zola fulfilled his long-held promise to return to Italy and play for hometown club Cagliari, despite pressure to stay, Zola refused to back down on his word.
A lasting gesture from man of enduring class.
16. Luis Suarez
There cannot have been a more divisive player in Premier League history than Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan played with Liverpool for just three and a half years but has left a large (and mixed) legacy behind him.
Equally mocked and vilified by opposition fans for a variety of transgressions, from the farcical diving to the faintly ludicrous biting incidents to the altogether more serious case of racial abuse, Suarez’s career in English football seemed set to be written as a man’s demons overshadowing a player’s undoubted talent.
However, rightly or wrongly, the 2013-14 season changed all of that. Until that point, Suarez had shown only snatches of his incredible talents, a ridiculous goal against Newcastle in 2012 bringing into focus exactly what he could do as he trapped a long punt downfield on his shoulder and danced around the keeper to pass into an empty net.
For all his ability, however, it appeared that his bans and punishments would come to define his Liverpool career.
Arriving back into a Liverpool team in late 2013 (after completing a band for biting Branislav Ivanovic) which had started the league well, Suarez seemed different. The snarl and energy of his play was still there, but there was a renewed drive and focus to him.
His Liverpool team that season, and it was most definitely his team, turned into a manic, thrilling circus, with their number 7 as its ringmaster.
Suarez found a vein of form that was scarcely believable, doing things week in and week out that only two or three other players on the planet could even have dreamed of.
In an incredible month of December, Suarez scored a record ten goals in a calendar month. Many other goal scoring records fell for him that season (he finished top scorer with 31 goals and joint top in assists with 13) and he deservedly claimed Player of the Year at the end of a season.
His individual displays had been astounding but what was so notable was how he brought the best out of what had been an unheralded team around him. His genius was not just in the nutmegs or in the clinical finishes but in how his rising tide lifted all his team-mates’ boats.
Suarez present s to us a moral quandary which we often face in sport; can we admire the player if we do not necessarily like the man?
The thing about Luis Suarez, and why he absolutely deserves his spot in the BPF Top 50, is that if you were to watch him mesmerise entire stadiums up and down England in that 2013/14 season, you could not help but feel like a child again, lost in the magic of what football really could be.
15. Didier Drogba
If José Mourinho’s myriad gifts ever allow him to create footballers in his own image, it is unlikely in the extreme that his efforts would differ greatly from Didier Drogba.
In a Chelsea career spanning two spells, 381 appearances and 164 goals, the towering Ivorian established himself as one of the Premier League’s most devastating players, a steel-cored serial winner of trophies and the snarl in Mourinho’s peculiarly abrasive team.
Recruited from Marseille in July 2004, as one of the signature signings in Roman Abramovich’s early era of largesse, Drogba proved himself worth every part of his £24 million fee.
Drogba remains an adored figure at Stamford Bridge, where fans appreciated his unbridled hunger for success along with his considerable skill on the field.
The very model of a modern centre forward, he spent much of his time as a lone striker capable of leading the line in courageous, often devastating fashion.
The club may have reigned in its purchasing power in recent years, but Abramovich was never shy about shopping around for newer toys. Drogba saw them all off.
While the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and, to a lesser extent, Hernan Crespo underwhelmed, Chelsea’s former number 11 established himself as the club’s big-game performer, a genuinely brilliant goalscorer-cum-provocateur whose singular footballing talent — comprised of power, speed and supreme technique — was matched, in full, by his inspirational qualities.
Drogba possessed that rare ability to perform at an optimum level on the game’s greatest stages, be they cup finals at Wembley, title clashes or, most fittingly, the 2012 Champions League decider in Munich, where he and his colleagues toppled the mighty Bayern in their own gilded nest.
Having already scored the equaliser to induce extra time, his penalty at the end of a tense shootout, completed with decisive calm, weaved his name into the fabric of a grand old club.
At the time, Drogba considered it his last contribution in Chelsea blue and though he would return for a final fling in 2014, that moment represents the zenith of an illustrious résumé.
14. John Terry
The “Captain, Leader, Legend” banner has become a permanent fixture at Stamford Bridge, a tribute to a man who has given the best part of two decades’ service to Chelsea Football Club.
John Terry made his debut for Chelsea on 28 October 1998, coming on as a substitute in a League Cup tie against Aston Villa, and he has gone on to make nearly 700 appearances in all competitions.
In 18 seasons, the now 35-year-old has collected four Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two Community Shields, and two major European titles – the Champions League in 2012 and the Europa League a year later.
Winning the continent’s top prize made up for the heartbreak of 2008 when Chelsea lost the Champions League Final to Manchester United, thanks in part to Terry’s slip and resultant missed spot kick in the penalty shoot out.
Surprisingly quick for an imposing centre half, Terry’s reading of the game often leads to him making crucial blocks in front of goal, and he is a dominant figure in the air at both ends of the pitch.
With 39 Premier League goals to his name, Terry sits first on the list of top scoring defenders, one ahead of former Everton man David Unsworth who was a specialist from the penalty spot.
John is our legend. I’m not saying this because I play with him – he is the best defender in England in the last 20 years.
– Chelsea team mate Nemanja Matic
Having made only 14 league appearances during the 2012/13 season, there were questions raised about Terry’s position in the Chelsea team, but he rebounded in emphatic fashion and was an ever present for the title-winning 2014/15 campaign.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing for Terry, and the racial abuse allegations levelled at him for an incident with Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand resulted in an apology, a four-match suspension at club level, and effectively the end of his international career.
There was also the story about an affair with former team mate Wayne Bridges’ ex-girlfriend which culminated in a non-handshake when the two came face-to-face on the pitch for a Chelsea game against Manchester City in February 2010.
On the park though, there is a strong case to be made for him being the best defender of the Premier League era, and it would be no surprise if he moves into the coaching end of the game once his playing days are over.
13. Tony Adams
He was the centre half whose nickname was “donkey”. He was somewhat of a wild man and no stranger to the law, by the age of 24 had already done a two month stretch inside.
Such a description might not sound like a one club legend who would go down as one of the greatest defenders in modern English football, but more of a cautionary tale of a young talent throwing a career away.
However, it’s one way to describe one of the finest servants to ever wear the red of Arsenal around a particular low point of his career. We are of course talking about Tony Adams.
It is testament to Adams’ resilience that he successfully battled the demons of his alcohol addiction and not only came back to the level of his early promise; (a first team debut at 17, Arsenal captain by 21), but actually improved and broadened his game to make him one of the more complete centre halves of his generation.
By the time of his retirement he had won four league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups and a Cup Winners’ Cup medal.
He had been the fulcrum of two hugely successful yet very different eras with Arsenal that would become associated with the personalities of their managers, the more staid yet still successful George Graham period and the more recent and footballingly attractive style of Arséne Wenger.
Of course Adams was not alone in these scaling these heights, he was very ably assisted by one of the most ruthless, professional and disciplined defences in English football and their durability and longevity bears testament to this.
John Lukic and later David Seaman in goal, full backs Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon, and centre half partner Steve Bould and later Martin Keown. All of them quality players and all shared the competitive streak that Adams used to such effect.
While Graham’s side was the more direct, Wenger encouraged the man they would later call “Mr. Arsenal” to build from the back, he helped Adams improve his fitness, diet and technical ability and prolonged his career well into his 30s.
What remained, regardless of style was the edge, you could see it in his tackling, in his reading of the game and his intensity to get to the ball first, you could see it in his goals, 48 in all club competitions, including sweetly enough, a header to win the 1993 FA Cup semi-final in Wembley against old foes Spurs.
When Arsenal moved to their new home chose to celebrate the club’s 125 anniversary in a special way. In December 2011, three statues were unveiled, one to Herbert Chapman, the revolutionary manager who had led them to glory in the 30s, one of Thierry Henry, the club’s record goal scorer and one to “Mr. Arsenal” Tony Adams not bad company to be in.
12. Eric Cantona
The date is 17th April 1993. The inaugural Premier League season is drawing to a close.
Old Trafford is full of Mancunians hardened by over a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. They are fiery, and have something to prove.
Their beloved club has gone 26 years without a league title, and they have watched hated rivals Liverpool enjoy unrivalled success.
On the pitch the winds of change have finally arrived though, and as a young Ryan Giggs helps the ball towards the back post, a Frenchman named Eric climbs above two Chelsea defenders to secure a 3-0 win.
Manchester United went on to win the 1992-93 title, and Eric Cantona was the catalyst. He scored nine goals for United after arriving in November from reigning champions Leeds. His goals helped, but it was his all-round demeanour that put United above the rest.
Collar up, chest out, Cantona had a swagger that teammates would look to in times of need. Opponents often had no answer, although Cantona was prone to letting his temper explode.
In January 1995 away at Crystal Palace his most iconic explosion took place. Palace defender Richard Shaw had been niggling at Cantona throughout the night, and just after half-time he got a response. Cantona took a swipe at Shaw and was subsequently sent off.
The Frenchman was boiling inside, and the abuse from a particular Palace fan – Matthew Simmons – pushed him over the edge. Cantona leapt over the advertising boards to kick Simmons in the chest.
United players rushed to Cantona’s aid, the Palace fans were incensed, kit-man Norman Davies had to drag Cantona down the tunnel.
When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.
– Eric Cantona, March 1995
An eight month ban was the punishment, but Cantona was convinced to stay in England by Alex Ferguson.
On his return to the field he scored 19 goals in all competitions, as United wrestled the title back from Blackburn.
Cantona’s glorious comeback completed his accession to the Old Trafford throne. King Eric is how he will always be remembered, and with four championships and two FA Cups in just five years, it is easy to understand why.
11. Steven Gerrard
It’s hard to think of another player as synonymous with one club, than Steven Gerrard and Liverpool. A Liverpudlian, who had been with the club since the age of 9, he went on to play for the club over 500 times in the Premier League, scoring 120 goals from his marauding midfield position.
Coming on as a last minute substitution for Vegard Heggem against Blackburn Rovers in 1998, it took a while for him to find his place, admitting in a later interview that he was “out of position and out of his depth”.
Still, he made 13 appearances for the club that season, but it wasn’t until the 1999-2000 season that he started demonstrating his capabilities from the middle of the park, where he was most natural.
After coming on as a second half sub against Everton that season in his first Merseyside derby, he further ingratiated himself with the red faithful by getting himself sent off for a foul on Everton favourite Kevin Campbell.
His first goal for the club came later that season against Sheffield Wednesday and his first taste of success with the club he had been at since a lad, came the following year as Liverpool went on to claim the League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, with Gerrard scoring against Manchester United and Alavez in the League and UEFA Cup finals respectively.
He was also, justifiably named the PFA Young Player of the Year, and would go on to win the senior version in 2006.
In September 2001, he also played a crucial part in the 1-5 drubbing of Germany in Munich, scoring a sublime drive just before half time to give England the lead. Unfortunately, he missed out on the tournament in Japan and South Korea through injury, but reward for his efforts at his club were handed to him by Gerard Houiller in 2003, as he was made captain of the side.
“He is a natural born leader, a very inspirational leader. He is somebody you want to follow” says the ex-Liverpool boss of his former charge.
It wasn’t long before Gerrard, frustrated with the lack of progression that Liverpool were making in the league, attracted attention from Stamford Bridge, as they repeatedly came calling for his signature, obviously thinking him and Lampard could play together, often a national debate in those days.
The second time was so serious, that Gerrard handed in a transfer request, and after much soul searching, stayed with the club. This was after arguably his finest moment of his club career and Istanbul, Gerrard the catalyst for the fightback against Milan.
Back at it again the following year in the FA Cup Final against West Ham, no one knows just how he managed to find the strength and power to slot home that equaliser, as Liverpool went on to claim the cup on penalties.
Premier League success remained unassailable as Liverpool finished second in 2009, and after an incredible campaign spearheaded by the cult figure of Luis Suarez, the captain looked finally to be driving his team towards the title in 2014. We all know what the slip against Chelsea meant. The trophy falling agonisingly away from him that day.
In January 2015, Gerrard announced that he was to leave the club for a new adventure in the States. No one could have ever seen him playing for another English club as Steven Gerrard has simply been Liverpool in the Premier League era.
A powerful leader who came up with the heroics time and time again for the cause, strong of mind and spirit, he had an enviable range of passing and shooting in his locker, and can truly lay claim to being one of the best midfielders the League has ever seen.