ARSENAL: Sol Campbell
This one is a no-brainer. The same was said of another Arsenal free transfer, mind. Campbell was not just their greatest Bosman signing but one of the most successful in Premier League history. A defensive colossus, two Premier League titles made him a hero even without the priceless Tottenham banter. He was so good they signed him twice. It’s also a shame they signed him twice.
ASTON VILLA: Thomas Hitzlsperger
Der Hammer. Der great signing on a free youth transfer from Bayern Munich. He left five years later as a Villa cult hero with 110 appearances, 13 goals and a lovable Brummie accent. “The move abroad to Birmingham and Aston Villa has changed my entire life and was probably one of the best moves I ever made,” he later said. Sending the 18-year-old to live with Villa fans in Sutton Coldfield turned out to be a bostin’ move.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) May 29, 2020
“Once a Seagull, always a Seagull,” were the final words of Bruno’s farewell speech after seven years at Brighton as right-back and mostly captain. He was true to his word as he remains there in a coaching capacity, the Mr. Miyagi to Tariq Lamptey’s Daniel. Few predicted such loyalty when Gus Poyet negotiated the arrival of the 31-year-old Spaniard in 2012. He would go on to help Brighton into the Premier League, being voted into the PFA Championship Team of the Year in successive seasons.
BURNLEY: Tom Heaton
Sean Dyche’s very first signing for Burnley in 2013 was a former Manchester United goalkeeper who had been on trial at Bristol City 12 months before. And what a signing he turned out to be; six years later he left for £8m having played 200 games for the Clarets which featured two promotions and three England caps. “Tom has been a terrific servant to the club, as an individual, for the team and for the fans,” was Dyche’s parting message.
CHELSEA: Ruud Gullit
Some genuine competition here with Michael Ballack and Gus Poyet also making excellent cases, but the nod goes to Gullit because this was a ‘sit up and take notice’ signing, an actual legend joining a club that carried the stench of Dennis Wise, Gavin Peacock and Frank Sinclair. This was when the new Chelsea was born, with Gullit taking over as player-manager the following year and bringing players like Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli to these shores. Chelsea could fill this list by themselves.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Mile Jedinak
Max Meyer looked like a candidate in the making when he joined a couple of years ago, while Vicente Guaita will surely warrant inclusion with a few more quietly impressive appearances to his name. But let’s ignore recency bias and credit Mile Jedinak, his beard and five years that brought nothing less than 100% effort and promotion to the Premier League. “To everyone who has been my family the last five years at SE25. To say it has been an emotional roller coaster is a bit of an understatement,” said Jedinak as Alan Pardew inexplicably allowed him to leave for Aston Villa.
EVERTON: Steven Naismith
The Scot became available for nothing in 2012 when Rangers tried to transfer his contract to a new company, and he jumped at the chance to join his old Rangers strike partner Nikica Jelavic at Goodison Park. Although rarely a regular for the Toffees, he did become a firm fan favourite for his effort levels over the next three-and-a-half years before he left for Norwich City. And he will always have that perfect hat-trick against Chelsea. Oh and Hearts, to save you a Google.
Remember Steven Naismith's perfect hat-trick against Chelsea in 2015?
— Everton (@Everton) May 20, 2018
FULHAM: Mark Schwarzer
With apologies to Carlos Bocanegra and Kit Symons, as well as Europa League finalists Zoltan Gera, Danny Murphy and Simon Davies, the nod must go to Mark Schwarzer of being Australian fame. How many other players can claim to have reached European finals with two different Premier League clubs? A few, perhaps. But who can say they did it with Middlesbrough and Fulham? Well that would be Schwarzer, whose Wikipedia page reliably informs us is ‘regarded as one of the greatest Premier League goalkeepers of all time’. He did win consecutive top-flight titles without playing a single game, after all. As for Fulham, they finished between 7th and 12th in his five seasons at the Cottage, then suffered relegation straight after he left for Leicester.
LEEDS: Luciano Becchio
Pablo Hernandez and Harry Kewell probably want a word but they will only play second fiddle at best when it comes to the hearts of Leeds fans.
LEICESTER CITY: Marc Albrighton
It doesn’t get much better than joining a newly promoted side on a free transfer and then winning the Premier League within two years. Discarded by Aston Villa, Albrighton was quite some deal by Nigel Pearson in 2014; he has since played 204 games for the club and still has a bit-part to play for the Foxes as they try to limp back into the Champions League on feet riddled with self-inflicted bullet wounds.
LIVERPOOL: James Milner
Who else but the man now in his sixth season with Liverpool who has played in about eight positions and never given less than all his heart in every one? Liverpool signed a double Premier League winner on a free transfer and gained the fittest man on Merseyside who has scored 26 goals in 228 appearances and been instrumental in winning the Premier League and Champions League, reaching another final in the latter. A move that was supposed to be a swansong is already the longest and most rewarding of his career, with no suggestion he is winding down anytime soon. The ultimate jack of no trades and master of all.
MANCHESTER CITY: Bacary Sagna
Sagna did not pull up any trees at City – his best years remained under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal – but the Frenchman offered competition to Pablo Zabaleta for three years before leaving at the end of his contract with only a League Cup to show for his efforts. Bizarrely, his competition for this ‘best free transfer’ honour was also a right-back, but we disqualified Danny Mills on the basis that he is a [redacted] acquired taste.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
A serial title winner and ridiculous goalscorer (and scorer of ridiculous goals), the Swede was a sticking plaster of a striker signing from Jose Mourinho in 2016 but he helped the club to League Cup and Europa League glory while lending them the illusion of glamour. His 28 goals from 46 games made a second contract too tempting to resist, though that ultimately proved to be a mistake. Edinson Cavani might challenge him for this spot awful soon.
2012: Robin van Persie
2017: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
2020: Edinson Cavani
All three of these United strikers scored late headers to seal 3-2 comeback wins against Southampton 🔮 pic.twitter.com/ZXg7nt44Ej
— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 29, 2020
NEWCASTLE UNITED: Demba Ba
The really quite brilliant Ba scored 29 goals in 58 appearances for the Magpies over 18 months after joining on a free transfer from West Ham after their relegation. His 16 Premier League goals were vital in Newcastle’s unlikely fifth-place finish under Pardew, but in January 2013 he quite understandably jumped at the chance to join Chelsea and Newcastle were quite happy to accept £7m for a player that had cost them bugger all. He can now be found beating Nemanja Matic in illegal and boring street races.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: John Fleck
Two promotions in three seasons for the man signed from fellow League One side Coventry City in 2016; that’s quite the return for absolutely no money. Fleck has twice been voted Sheffield United Player of the Year but his importance has been best encapsulated by their immense struggles through his injuries and subsequent lack of fitness upon a quick return this season. “We brought him in on a free transfer from Coventry when we were in League One and he’s embraced every level since and moved forward,” said Chris Wilder as Fleck’s form was rewarded with a Scottish call-up last year.
SOUTHAMPTON: Paul Telfer
Not the sexiest of names but a key part of the Southampton side that established itself in the middle reaches of the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final. Telfer basically just followed Gordon Strachan around, so much so that it was rumoured that he was married to one of his daughters.
TOTTENHAM: Brad Friedel
Free. Actually free. It was at Tottenham that Friedel’s run of 310 consecutive Premier League games was ended in October 2012 by fancy new French signing Hugo Lloris, but the American had already become a Spurs hero even though he signed at the grand old age of 40. He had signed as competition for Heurelho Gomes and Carlo Cudicini but proved to be better than both. Of course he did.
🎂 #HappyBirthday to former Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Brad Friedel:
🏟 Appearances: 67
🥅 Clean Sheets: 19
💙 “I am very lucky that I had the help from so many members of the staff [at Tottenham Hotspur]. They did not have to help me, but they did."
— Last Word On Spurs🎙 (@LastWordOnSpurs) May 18, 2020
WEST BROM: Kevin Campbell
Depends on your preference really. For longevity it has to be Gareth McAuley, who played more than 200 times for West Brom after running his Ipswich contract down in the summer of 2011. But in terms of moments it could only be Kevin Campbell and the three goals he scored – in two wins and a draw – to help the Baggies become the first relegation escapologists after being bottom at Christmas. The forward joined from Everton mid-season, a month before his 35th birthday, and soon set about making history.
WEST HAM: Teddy Sheringham
West Ham’s propensity for big wages has led to some marquee names arriving for free, with Jack Wilshere, Zabaleta and, erm, Alvaro Arbeloa arriving in the last three years. But the daddy of all their free transfer signings was Teddy Sheringham, who casually scored 20 Championship goals at the age of 38 to help them back into the Premier League. And then he stayed to play games, score the occasional goal and set records in his 40s in the top flight.
WOLVES: Ryan Bennett
It’s the kind of free transfer that does not even cause a ripple; former England Under-21 centre-half Ryan Bennett was given a contract by Championship club Wolves after being released by Championship club Norwich. The 30-year-old has served his purpose in the Midlands, spending much of last season, and all of this one, out on loan.