Top 50 Premier League Players of All Time: Part 6 – 5-3

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.

The penultimate part of our countdown has three of the Premier League’s attacking stars who, as well as claiming title honours, bagged 454 goals between them.

BPF Top 50 2015 teaser

View the longlist and voting process here.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

05_SCHOLES-015. Paul Scholes

Manchester United

Former Manchester United and England midfielder Paul Scholes has securely embedded himself as virtually every United fan’s favourite player of the Premier League era.

Despite the glamour of team mates including Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, Scholes’ enduring brilliance and ability to mutate with the demands of not just his team, but the wider football world, has marked him out as special.

Throughout his career there has been countless eulogies regarding his commitment to his craft and his disregard for the extra-curricular activities that can form part of modern professional football.

Indeed, it is from this perceived ‘shyness’ that the common misconception of Scholes has been created, portrayed as a shrinking violet, a claim has been dismissed by countless team mates and opponents.

Put simply, Scholes concentrated his energies simply on being the best player he could possibly be for the cause of Manchester United, and from this he became critical to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team.

Many Red Mancunians will have isolated Scholes vintage moments; the two debut goals against Port Vale in ’94, his FA Cup Final goal in ’99, the outrageous volley against Bradford in 2000 or his winner against Barcelona in 2008.

Initially deployed as a second striker in his early United days, Scholes withdrawal to central midfield was to be a career-defining shift.

In his early career he was rotated with Nicky Butt, as Roy Keane’s midfield partner, but by 1997 he was indispensable to the team.

Ferguson sought a player to allow United to dominate the central attacking areas, as a counter point to Keane’s anchoring qualities, and Scholes was to be that player, forming a telepathic relationship with the Irishman.

As the seasons passed, and United, and Keane, moved on Scholes remained critical to the United cause, despite approaching his thirties.

His role was once more adapted and his game intelligence and ball retention skills were utilised in a deeper role, where his playmaking ability allowed the likes of Darren Fletcher, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo to flourish.

Scholes’ initial decision to retire in May 2011 was treated with the type of sadness from United fans normally reserved for the death of family members, however he made a shock return to the team in eight months later, and was to win his final League title in 2013.

Throughout his career and subsequent retirement, Scholes has been the subject of specific praise for some of the game’s greatest ever players.

However perhaps the best compliment to pay him is, that in era where too often physical attributes were the hallmarks of his peers, Scholes remained as a player able to stand out simply as a better footballer than most.

Feargal Brennan

04_BERGKAMP-014. Dennis Bergkamp

Arsenal

It’s strange that Dennis Bergkamp, a man so inextricably linked with the Arsenal of Arsene Wenger was actually the first signing of Bruce Rioch’s brief reign as Highbury gaffer after the departure of George Graham.

It’s also easy to forget that the “non-Flying Dutchman” was viewed as somewhat damaged goods after an underwhelming spell at Inter Milan. In fact it was alleged that Spurs manager Gerry Francis had the opportunity to sign Bergkamp but elected to go for Palace’s Chris Armstrong instead.

But Bergkamp was a scintillating addition of exquisite technique and unpredictable, crowd-pleasing flair to a Premiership still dominated by British and Irish players.

He offered a certain level of continental class, a player in his prime coming to England and offering a very different skill set.

An early partnership with Ian Wright flourished and later the arrival of a young Nicolas Anelka helped to deliver Bergkamp’s first title in English football in 1997-98 but it was the arrival of Thierry Henry that would lead to the formation of one of the great strike partnerships in English football history.

The pair would win another two league titles together which included the 2004-04 season when Arsenal went undefeated in the League with one of the finest front-pairings in world football.

While many remember for the quality of his goals, the strikes against Leicester (where he grabbed a hat trick) and Newcastle immediately jump to mind, Bergkamp was equally enamoured by the beauty of the assist, the finely threaded, slide-rule pass splitting open a defence for an Henry, Overmars or Pires to finish.

He surely created more goals than he scored and he could never be described as selfish as a strike partner.

With his blonde hair, the somewhat restrained personality off the pitch, the geometric cool brilliance and the outrageous flair all left the feeling that Bergkamp was both assassin and artist, an ice in his veins finisher blessed of exquisite technique but at the same time a genuine crowd pleaser capable of baroque football adornments to his play.

His cool exterior couldn’t match the fact that, like most of the best players of that early Wenger era , he was a ferocious competitor. Although it may not have been as obvious as a Keown, Adams or Viera there was a steeliness and competitiveness to Bergkamp.

He had a temper too, just witness his infamous stamp on notorious shrinking violet Sinisa Mihajlovic in the 1998 World Cup, and he was sent off four times in his Arsenal career. This was a man who had a bid of an edge.

Bergkamp, like Cantona and Zola arrived in the Premier League of the early-mid 90’s and opened up English football to the modern promise of the cultured, technically gifted non-English forward.

He helped create a space for a generation of successors but few, if any can say that they have bettered him.

Gerry Farrell

03_SHEARER-013. Alan Shearer

Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Southampton

To more than one generation of football fans, Alan Shearer is rather mundane pundit whose presence on the Match of the Day panel is rarely cause for anything beyond indifference.

Faintly morose and ever exasperated by the mediocrity he is sometimes required to watch, Shearer is a curator of football’s strict higher standards, a man with little time for those who can’t cut it.

As well he should be. For those whose footballing awakening coincided with the sport’s own nineties rebirth, there will simply never be footballer to rival Shearer. During his considerable pomp – a period essentially comprising every season of an 18-year career – the Gosforth native cut a swathe through the national game with a goal-scoring record that shows no sign of being broken in this era of lone strikers and collective scoring.

Sure, modern superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have remoulded what the world understands about its forward foragers, yet Shearer was a true throwback in the new age of globalism.

It might seem somewhat dated now, especially given the dearth of genuine greatness at the position beyond Robert Lewandowski, but Shearer’s talents were a perfect reflection of gifts honed to a degree far exceeding their natural properties.

He made his name at Southampton, scoring 43 goals in 158 total games between 1987 and 1992. While hardly a spectacular tally, the young Geordie’s predatory skills and boundless energy – not to mention an England debut – convinced Sir Jack Walker, that great northern benefactor of old, to part with £3.6 million and bring him to Blackburn Rovers, a club of grand traditions intent on usurping the natural order.

With Shearer in the vanguard, and Kenny Dalglish installed as manager, Rovers would eventually clinch the Premier League title in 1995. It was a stunning achievement for a club of that size, regardless of Walker’s soaring ambition. Incredibly, this was the only medal Shearer ever won as a player.

On a professional level, however, his time in Lancashire him transformed into, arguably, the most feared attacker in English football history.

At his peak, he constituted the prototypical centre-forward, a bustling, marauding seeker of goals, be they audacious or mundane, whose lethal finishing ability often took effect beyond the confines of the penalty area. Shearer was a great scorer of great goals; he was prolific.

Unfortunately, testing himself against Europe’s elite would not be a consistent theme for reasons of team incompetence and strict entrance requirements admitting only the best to continental competition, but the acknowledged wisdom was that few could match his brand of ferocious power, brawler’s strength and decisive technique.

Indeed, those attributes, demonstrated so publicly on behalf of his country at Euro ’96, saw Newcastle United smash the British transfer record and bring him home to Tyneside in the summer of that year. The £15 million sum was well spent.

Granted, Shearer never won another title once he departed Ewood Park, yet, individually at least, he served as the elite exponent of top-flight attacking play

After a total of 171 appearances and 130 goals in Rovers’ blue and white, he registered 206 in 405 matches for the Magpies. With 260 Premier League scores, he leads his nearest competitor, second-placed Andrew Cole, by 73.

A former England captain, Shearer retired from international duty in 2000. His 30 goals in 63 contests place him fifth on the all-time scoring list, tied with fellow Lancastrian icons Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse.

That decision to quit while still in prime physical condition prolonged his domestic longevity, granting him vital extra years to gird an unassailable legacy.

Matthew Coyle

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