Every Premier League club’s best free transfer signing

Date published: Friday 17th April 2020 7:58 - Sarah Winterburn

James Milner Liverpool

The best free transfers. All here. Mostly because we love James Milner…


ARSENAL: Sol Campbell
This one is a no-brainer. Not just Arsenal’s 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. Though the second time was proper sh*te.


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.


There was little evidence that Norwegian international King could establish himself in the Premier League when he signed from Blackburn in 2015 after a season which featured just one Championship goal. But Eddie Howe clearly saw a spark of magic; five years later he has scored 46 goals in 154 Premier League games and he spent January being linked with a £25m move back to Manchester United.


“Once a Seagull, always a Seagull,” were the final words of Bruno’s farewell speech after seven years at the club as right-back and mostly captain. He was true to his word as he remains there in a coaching capacity, having become an adopted son of the city. Nobody saw that coming 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,” said Dyche.


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, a genuine legend joining a club that carried the stamp 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.


Max Meyer looked like a candidate in 2018, while Gary Cahill and Vicente Guaita could yet make long-term cases, 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.


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 signing 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 bid to return to the Champions League.


LIVERPOOL: James Milner
Who else but the man now in his fifth 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 210 appearances and been instrumental in reaching two Champions League finals. A move that was supposed to be a swansong will end up being the longest and most rewarding of his career. A proper Yorkshire hero.


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.


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 Alan 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.


Anybody who remembered Finnish striker Pukki from his spell at Celtic would not have got too giddy about him signing for Norwich, even on a free transfer. But last season he delivered 29 Championship goals to be named Player of the Year for both club and division. This season he shrugged off suggestions that the Premier League would be a step too far, scoring 11 goals in his first 28 games at that level. He has pretty much guaranteed himself another top-flight season even when the Canaries have died down the mine.


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 and would be a contender this season as the 28-year-old has taken to the Premier League like it was Sunday football. “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.


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.


WATFORD: Heurelho Gomes
The Brazilian joined Watford on a one-year contract in 2014 and he is still there, first announcing and then renouncing his retirement last summer. Gomes led the Hornets to promotion in his first season and was their Player of the Year in their first season back in the Premier League. He loves Watford and Watford loves him.


WEST HAM: Teddy Sheringham
West Ham’s propensity for big wages has led to some big names arriving for free, with Jack Wilshere, Pablo 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. He has since bizarrely departed for Leicester City but there will always be a corner of the West Midlands that belongs to him.


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