Top 10: Players who went for free at their peak

Ian Watson


10. Brad Friedel
It’s hard to believe that the USA keeper couldn’t shift David James or Sander Westerveld during three years at Liverpool but Friedel was still developing when he joined Blackburn on a free as a 29-year-old.

In eight years at Rovers, he showed Liverpool exactly what he was capable of, with consistently rock-solid performances and the odd display of brilliance. Gordon Strachan said of one performance: “He must’ve got changed in a phonebox because he looked like Superman.” He eventually left Blackburn in 2008 during Paul Ince’s reign, showing yet further sound judgement.


9. Phillip Cocu
The versatile Dutchman rejected Real Madrid, Atletico, Juventus, Inter and Lazio when he left PSV on a free, opting to join half of the Holland team at Barca. Michael Reiziger, Frank de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Boudewijn Zenden, Ronald de Boer and Winston Bogarde were all playing under Louis van Gaal at the Nou Camp.

But Cocu stayed longest, with the midfielder breaking Barca’s appearance record for a foreign player – a record he retained until Lionel Messi rocked up. The then-34-year-old returned in 2004 to PSV, where he now manages.


8. Michael Ballack
Another one Manchester United missed out on, Ballack rejected most of Europe’s big hitters in 2006 to sign a three-year deal at Chelsea following the expiry of his contract at Bayern Munich. “Chelsea is very happy and we think English football should be very happy Ballack plays for Chelsea and plays in the Premiership,” said Jose Mourinho, knowing full well it doesn’t work like that.

Ballack stayed for a further year beyond those original terms, winning everything there is to win domestically. There will always be the 2007-08 season, though, when Ballack finished as a runner-up in the Premier League, League Cup, Champions League and Euro 2008.


7. Henrik Larsson
The King of Kings at Parkhead, Larsson scored 242 goals in 313 appearances for Celtic, with 30 of those coming just against Dunfermline and another 25 against Aberdeen. There was still plenty left in the tank at 33 when Barca came calling, and Larsson went on to score 19 goals in 58 appearances and became Ronaldinho’s ‘idol’ during two years at the Nou Camp.

His final appearance for Barca came in the Champions League final versus Arsenal, against whom he came off the bench to set up both goals; Thierry Henry was impressed: “People always talk about Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Giuly and everything, but I didn’t see them today, I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on, he changed the game, that is what killed the game. Sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto’o and people like that; you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson.”



6. Esteban Cambiasso
Florentino Perez’s desire to build a Real Madrid team of ‘Zidanes and Pavones’ meant Cambiasso’s days at the Bernabeu were numbered: “Already in the first team, the politics of the moment meant that most of the side were made up of academy players and galacticos, and I wasn’t either of those.

“Claude Makelele was the same. He was not considered until he left. We are players who do a lot of work for a team and when we leave, it shows.” Real’s loss was Inter’s gain. The Argentina workhorse won five Serie A titles and the Champions League for the Nerazzurri.


5. David Beckham
Then-president of Real Madrid Ramon Calderon said of Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy: “He’s going to Hollywood to be half a film star. Our technical staff were right not to extend his contract, which has been proved by the fact that no other technical staff in the world wanted him except Los Angeles.”

Of course, Beckham rammed those words back down the president’s throat. Having grafted his way back into the plans of Fabio Capello, who had previously stated that the midfielder would not play for Real again after his LA deal was announced, Real tried to do a deal with Galaxy to keep the 31-year-old. They failed, and Beckham proved he could still do it during loan spells at AC Milan and PSG.



4. Steve McManaman
The Liverpool winger was the first English player to capitalise on the Bosman ruling, agreeing to join Real Madrid in 1999 on a four-year deal worth around £50,000 a week.

“This is a chance to test myself in a top European league,” said the then-27-year-old winger. He won eight trophies and played in 11 cup finals in four years before returning to Manchester City, where he is remembered rather less fondly.


3. Robert Lewandowski
The Poland striker recovered from the crushing blow of being denied a move to Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn by a volcanic ash cloud to tear up the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund. So, of course, Bayern Munich wanted him.

Having paid Mario Gotze’s release clause in 2013, Bayern quickly turned their attention to Lewandowski. By the time the move was confirmed in January 2014, it was already the game’s worst kept secret. The centre-forward became even more potent at Bayern, scoring 110 goals in 147 games in three seasons so far.


2. Sol Campbell
Reporters who had gathered at an Arsenal press conference in July 2001 supposedly to unveil Richard Wright got quite the shock when Sol Campbell strolled into the room. The former Tottenham defender had crossed the north London divide in exchange for a four-year contract worth around £100,000 a week.

“I’ve made my decision and I just hope people respect it,” said Campbell, apparently with a straight face. He still can’t believe he wasn’t invited back for the Farewell to the Lane bash after Spurs’ last home game of the season. Probably for the best, Sol…


1. Andrea Pirlo
“When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: ‘God exists!’,” said Gianluigi Buffon shortly after Pirlo walked away from AC Milan and into Juventus. “A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century! It’s truly embarrassing just how good he is.”

The reddest faces of all belonged to those at AC Milan who thought the midfielder was on the wane. He may have been 32 but Pirlo was only just getting started. In four seasons at Juve, he made 164 appearances, scoring 19 goals – 15 from free-kicks – and contributed 35 assists.

Ian Watson