10) Arjen Robben (Chelsea)
Robben really did come close to being left out for George Boateng, who amassed 382 Premier League games (a total beaten by only one foreign outfield player in history). However, Robben might only have managed 67 league games in England, but he did play a vital role in two title victories.
There is no doubt that the Premier League did not see the best of Robben, who has got distinctly better with age, but he paid the price for being an exciting winger under Jose Mourinho. He arrived as a raw 20-year-old with injury issues and a penchant for diving, and left as a less raw 23-year-old with injury issues and a penchant for diving. The nine years since then haven’t gone too badly.
9) Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool)
The hardest working man in showbusiness, and – amid stiff competition – possibly Anfield’s favourite ever foreign player. What Kuyt lacked in skill and pace he made up for in guts, determination and underrated finishing ability.
Kuyt arrived at Liverpool with a reputation as an out-and-out goalscorer, but was eventually turned into a player who could operate anywhere in the opposition half. He also had a knack for goals on the big occasion, which is the quickest route to becoming a cult hero. You can keep your Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez, and give me Dirk ‘the machine’ Kuyt every single day of the bloody week.
8) Ruud Gullit (Chelsea)
He arrived as an ageing international, winding down after an great career, but became one of the most important players in Premier League history. At a time when England was gaining a reputation as a retirement league for foreign players, Gullit turned that accusation on his head. He was named runner-up to Eric Cantona in Footballer of the Year, and heralded the arrival of a new footballing culture.
There is a wonderful quote from Gullit to emphasise this shift: “I would take a difficult ball, control it, make space and play a good ball in front of the right back, except that he didn’t want that pass. Eventually Glenn said to me, ‘Ruud, it would be better if you do these things in midfield’.” Three years later, that would be the Premier League norm.
7) Robin van Persie (Arsenal, Manchester United)
Let’s start with a quiz question: In how many seasons has Van Persie scored more than 12 league goals?
The answer to that teaser is three, indicative of a striker who took an awfully long time to fully develop and perennially struggled with injuries. The only two times in his entire career Van Persie played more than 30 league games in a season, he scored 56 goals in those two combined. The obvious conclusion is that we will never quite know how good Van Persie could have been.
That said, this is hardly a career to mourn. Having led Arsenal through their stadium payback years, Van Persie promptly moved to Manchester United and won them the title back from Manchester City. Furthermore, if his club career was blighted by injury, his international form did not suffer. No player in history has scored more goals for the Dutch national team than Van Persie’s 50.
6) Edwin van der Sar (Fulham, Manchester United)
One of Manchester United’s greatest ever goalkeepers, having joined the club at the age of 35. Van der Sar still managed to play 266 games for the club, win nine domestic trophies and the European Cup and set a record for the number of minutes without conceding a league goal.
‘What’s needed to be a great keeper: shot stopping, presence, authority, organiser, good feet, mental strength, agility, there are more,’ wrote Rio Ferdinand when Van der Sar turned 45 last year. ‘But one thing Edwin had more than any keeper I ever played with was calmness and composure. Great players make others play better, and Edwin certainly did that.’
5) Marc Overmars (Arsenal)
Like Bergkamp before him, Overmars’ initial performances at Arsenal drew significant criticism as he struggled to settle into English football. Yet by the end of his first season he had won the league and cup double, and scored vital goals against Manchester United at Old Trafford and Newcastle in the FA Cup final at Wembley. In 2008, Overmars was voted as the twelfth-greatest player in Arsenal’s history by the club’s supporters.
“I go back to Arsenal every year but have never been back to Barcelona since I left, so I guess that tells you something,” said Overmars in 2007. “I enjoyed my time at Arsenal unbelievably. The atmosphere was good of course – in the stadium and in the dressing room – and it was a great period for the club. I had three years of success there and from a personal point of view, they were the best years of my career.”
4) Jaap Stam (Manchester United)
“I felt terrible telling Stam of the decision because I could see he was devastated,” said Alex Ferguson in his book Leading. “In retrospect, his sale was premature.” You bloody bet it was. Ferguson’s official line was that Stam’s recent achilles injury gave him doubts about the defender’s fitness, but the suspicion was that Fergie was reacting to claims that Stam had made in his autobiography.
Whatever the reason, Ferguson lost a central defender who shares the podium with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic over Manchester United’s last 20 years. He may only have stayed at Old Trafford for three seasons, but Stam won three Premier League titles, one Champions League trophy and the FA Cup.
United’s success and Stam’s presence was no coincidence. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year for each of his seasons in England, and also named as Europe’s best defender two years in a row by UEFA.
3) Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United)
The fourth top goalscorer in Champions League history, with a better goals-to-game ratio in the competition than Cristiano Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy’s career is in danger of being slightly forgotten. At his peak, he was Europe’s most feared striker.
Like Stam before him, Van Nistelrooy was sold by Ferguson after incurring the manager’s wrath, reacting angrily after being left out of the Carling Cup final in 2006. Fergie had previously accused his striker of selfishness, but a record of 150 goals in 219 appearances offers firm evidence for the defence.
Reports have also surfaced of Van Nistelrooy’s unhappiness at playing alongside Ronaldo, with Guillem Balague claiming that the striker kicked out at his teammate in training. There’s only so much selfishness you can fit into one team.
2) Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Leeds, Chelsea, Middlesbrough, Charlton)
Hasselbaink is my one. Actually, he’s one of my two with Henrik Larsson. When I’m stuck in a bout of insomnia, I go to Youtube and watch either a video of Larsson’s Celtic goals or Hasselbaink’s 87 goals for Chelsea. Bloody magic.
Just watch the standard of goals in that video. That was Hasselbaink between the ages of 28 and 32, generating more power from a short backlift than a small rhinoceros running at full pelt. He scored 260 career goals, had power, pace and poise and yet got ten fewer international caps than Kieron Dyer.
1) Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal)
Some lovely quotes on Bergkamp:
“He’s the messiah. We told him to get us into Europe when he joined and that’s exactly what he did” – Ian Wright.
“Bergkamp had the finest technique of all Dutch players” – Guus Hiddink.
“If Ryan Giggs is worth 20 million, Dennis Bergkamp is worth 100 million” – Marco van Basten.
“Dennis is the best player I have ever played with as a partner. It is a dream for a striker to have him in the team with you” – Thierry Henry.
Now go and read his Portrait of an Icon piece. He was the first, you know. What an honour.
Honourable mentions go to: George Boateng, Rafael van der Vaart, Virgil van Dijk, Ed de Goey, Bryan Roy, Ron Vlaar, Andre Ooijer, Mario Melchiot, John Heitinga, Wilfred Bouma and Ricky van Wolfswinkel.