Top ten most influential players in Premier League history

Date published: Tuesday 21st April 2020 8:21 - Matthew Stead


During their engaging debate about the best European imports in Premier League history, Ian Wright and Gary Lineker got us thinking: who are the most influential players in the modern game?

Lineker disagreed with Wright’s placing of Roy Keane at number one on his list on the basis of there having been other players with a bigger “influence on our game”. And while that is a subjective and vague measure by definition, it is an interesting one.

These ten players are not necessarily the best in Premier League history, but in each case their talent helped create an impact that is still felt to this day, whether that be as the first of their nationality to be embraced on these shores, or as someone who took career steps that many have since followed. The only difference between this and the initial list is that we won’t be restricting it solely to Europeans…


10) Ruud Gullit
In terms of challenging and changing perceptions, few were quite as successful or as important as Ruud Gullit. It was Chelsea who fielded the first all-foreign Premier League XI in December 1999, but the Dutchman who laid those foundations.

His arrival at Stamford Bridge four years prior was not quite the celebrated moment it perhaps should have been. England had not boasted a Ballon d’Or winner in its leagues since Southampton signed Kevin Keegan in 1980, and a two-time European champion had no place in south west London. But there was an uncomfortable assumption that, at 32 and on a sizeable wage, he was here for one last pay day before retirement.

Those suggestions were soon dismissed. He came runner-up in the Footballer of the Year vote in his first season and was an FA Cup-winning player-manager by the end of his second, the third foreign coach in English top-flight history putting forth his claim as a true great. He was also a pioneer of midfield metronomy, having been moved into the role from the sweeper position because his defensive teammates couldn’t quite keep up. Not bad for a mercenary.


9) Rio Ferdinand
While the current going rate for a centre-half capable of standing on two feet and breathing independently is equivalent to the GDP of a small country, it has not always been this way. The Premier League was always far from immune to football’s ignorance of anything but goalscorers and playmakers.

Rio Ferdinand was fighting that battle for relevance almost single-handedly at one point. Before his £18m move to Leeds in November 2000, the biggest fee an English club had ever paid for a defender was the £10.6m Manchester United traded for Jaap Stam in 1998. That remained the record until Ferdinand himself shattered it by moving to Old Trafford for £30m in the summer of 2002. Not until Eliaquim Mangala joined Manchester City in 2014 was that marker beaten. Talk about chalk and cheese.

His impact – Ferdinand’s, not Mangala’s – reached beyond economic factors. Stylistically, he was integral in shaping the modern game, redefining an entire position and establishing an obsession with ball-playing elegance that still exists and has not been matched to this day.


8) Gianfranco Zola
‘It has transpired that Parma have been keen to unload Zola after he fell out with their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, and the Italian club will doubtless be very happy with such a fee for a 30-year-old,’ reads a line in The Independent from November 1996, a snapshot of a simpler time when £4.5m seemed like far too steep a fee for someone entering their final playing years.

By the time of his departure in 2003, it was a bargain. Zola was emblematic of Chelsea’s transformation from mid-table stragglers to genuine contenders: they finished either 11th or 14th in the six seasons before he signed and no lower than sixth in seven campaigns with him. His exit for Cagliari came in the same week as Roman Abramovich’s Stamford Bridge takeover, having inspired the Blues to that fateful Champions League place.

Only one man could ever be named FWA Footballer of the Year without having played a full season in England. Or only one “clever little so-and-so”, according to Sir Alex Ferguson.


7) Steve McManaman
If Ferguson is to be believed, Ludek Mikloksko did not cost Manchester United the title in 1995. “We lost the league at Anfield by not listening to instructions about McManaman,” he said in a team talk ahead of a game against Liverpool in 1998, alluding to their 2-0 defeat on Merseyside three years prior. Paul Ince had shirked his man-marking duties to offer the forward the freedom of the right-hand side, which McManaman duly accepted to play a part in the opener before later scoring the second.

It is worth remembering just how good a player he was, at one time rated as highly as Ryan Giggs and the subject of eight-figure bids from Barcelona and Juventus. But McManaman would stay with Liverpool until the summer of 1999, when he became Britain’s first notable Bosman transfer and highest-paid player ever. Real Madrid had come calling and Liverpool, as the BBC put it, did ‘not receive a penny’.

Such moves are commonplace now but before the turn of the millennium it was McManaman tasked with treading new ground. As an English Champions League winner abroad and the first footballer of his generation to write a weekly newspaper column while still playing, there were more than a few trails he blazed.


6) Dennis Bergkamp
For an insight into how remarkably insular the English game can be, Dennis Bergkamp is an ideal case study. Coming third and second in consecutive Ballon d’Or years in the early 1990s mattered little when The Sun could give some Stuart Pearce quotes a ‘BERGY’S A WASTE OF MONEY’ headline, and his initial struggles in England were ripe for the full tabloid treatment: one published an ongoing clock ticking over to mark his initial goal drought, while another gleefully printed a photo of a net to remind the Dutchman what one looked like.

It was the typical reaction of a nation obsessed with the idea that their league was the toughest, the most difficult, the best, and that no ordinary Tom, Dennis or Harry could conquer it. Bergkamp did – thrice – and with the sort of generational skill and old-fashioned aggression that opened many eyes as to how foreign imports could exponentially improve our game rather than impede it.


5) Juninho
The thought of Nigel Pearson rocking up to the Riverside that November afternoon in 1995, only to be greeted by catering trucks serving ‘Juninho burgers with a hot samba sauce’ for £1.20, police horses with ‘Born in Brazil, reborn in Middlesbrough’ hats placed atop their unwitting heads, a giant shirt flypast put on by club sponsors and fans masquerading as a mariachi band, is worthy of an entire Netflix series in itself. Teesside had taken leave of its collective sense, and for good reason.

The reigning Brazilian Footballer of the Year, “the most sought-after player in the world” according to chief executive Keith Lamb, was here. And if a glorious assist followed by a yellow card for a tackle from behind on Tony Yeboah did not tell those watching that their preconceptions were misplaced, they would soon be made to see.

No foreign player in English football league history has joined a club with whom they have no prior affiliation and become part of its fabric quite as seamlessly as Juninho did at Middlesbrough. Shirts could be hastily printed and season tickets sold but neither tears upon relegation in his first spell nor joy at guiding the club to its first major honour in his third were manufactured.


4) Didier Drogba
“Judge him when he leaves the club,” was Jose Mourinho’s response when questioned as to why Chelsea made Didier Drogba their most expensive player ever in 2004. The 26-year-old striker had played just three seasons of top-flight football after making a late professional debut. He came third in Ligue Un’s Golden Boot race in his first and only Marseille campaign; Liverpool signed the younger top scorer Djibril Cisse from Auxerre the previous month for almost half as much.

Mourinho was, of course, right. The critics were soon silenced by the first and still only African player to reach 100 Premier League goals. They were confounded by the artist who revelled on the biggest stages. They marvelled at a star who used his platform for the greater good, mixing off-pitch philanthropy with uncharitable treatment of centre-halves on it. He was not the first African player on these shores, but he sure as hell remains the barometer of brilliance.


3) David Beckham
The timing could not have been better. As David Beckham was lobbing Neil Sullivan on that sunny August afternoon, the Premier League was approaching the peak of its cultural significance. It was on that rocket that the boy from London would be strapped as he transcended the sport that made him.

Beckham was not the first celebrity footballer but remains the most enduring. Children today idolise someone they never saw play live; those who ignore and abhor the game still recognise the name. His is a brand that long precedes Facegram, InstaTok and TwitSpace and could conceivably outlast them all.

No player has maximised his gifts through incessant application, nor captured the imagination of continents and mastered the growing media spotlight, like the ‘Gaultier-saronged, Posh Spiced, Cooled Britannia, look-at-me, what-a-lad, loadsamoney, sex-and-shopping, fame-schooled, daytime-TV, over-coiffed twerp’. Thanks to the Daily Telegraph for that one.


2) Thierry Henry
Show me anyone who has never reconstructed, in their own garden, peeling off the last defender, taking a single touch on the left-hand side to receive a pass in the penalty area, opening up their body and lifting and curling the ball ever so slightly into the far bottom corner, and I will present to you either a bare-faced liar or someone who has never truly lived. Thierry Henry had his trademark goal and there was rarely a damn thing even the finest defenders could do about it.

The Frenchman, at his peak, might be the most entertaining, watchable player in Premier League history. There was an unfathomably equal level of innocence and insouciance to his play, a humble arrogance. He enjoyed performing and we, the audience, demanded an encore each week.

It would be incredibly unfair to characterise strikers as plodding, meat-and-potatoes finishers before Henry, but his was a multi-faceted magnificence that reimagined the role of centre-forward entirely. If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, Henry ought to be pretty much two-dimensional at this rate.


1) Eric Cantona
But there can only be one King. A Premier League without Eric Cantona does not bear thinking about. He won the last First Division and properly started his England journey four months before the top flight was repackaged, yet still feels intrinsically Premier League.

From scoring the first hat-trick to being one of only nine outfield foreigners to feature on the opening weekend, Cantona is unmistakably woven into the patchwork of the league’s very beginnings. He inspired its greatest side to four titles in five years and provided moments that became instant folklore, be it through karate kicks or impudent chips.

“Many people have justifiably acclaimed Cantona as a catalyst who had a crucial impact on our success while he was with the club, but nothing he did in matches meant more than the way he opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice,” Ferguson once said. “Practice makes players.” And players like Cantona made history, memories and an awful lot of fans fall in love.

Matt Stead


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