The Most Influential Players in Premier League History
Explore our rundown of which players have had the biggest and longest lasting impact on the Premier League.
While there have been countless impressive players in Premier League history, there are some who leave more of a lasting influence than others do. This does not mean that they are the best players in the league, but they have had a lasting impact on the game that is remembered to this day. Here we look at some of the most influential players from the Premier League.
For many, Eric Cantona is undoubtedly the most influential player to have ever played in the Premier League. He won the last First Division and began his journey in England in earnest four months before the top division was rebranded, but he very much feels like a Premier League player.
He had numerous achievements over the years, such as scoring the first hat trick and being one of just nine outfield foreigners to feature on the opening weekend. He was part of many ‘firsts’ in the league, he helped inspire one of the greatest teams to win four titles in five years and there are many Cantona moments that have entered footballing folklore, such as karate kicks and bold chips.
Speaking about the player, Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “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. Practice makes players.” Cantona’s practice ensured the he earned a spot in history and will be remembered by fans for years to come.
Thierry Henry was perhaps best known for his trademark goal, which very few defenders were able to stop. After a single touch on the left-hand side to receive a pass in the penalty area, he would open up his body and lift and curl the ball slightly in to the far bottom corner.
When at his best, he may have been the most enjoyable player to watch in Premier League history. There was both innocent and casualness to his play, which most likely masked a certain amount of arrogance. He was a born performer and a truly talented one at that. It is arguable that he completely redefined the role of centre forwards within the game and there is no doubt that several have tried to imitate his style in the years since he took to the field.
David Beckham came onto the football scene at the perfect time, just as the sport was reaching its peak of cultural significance. He then shot to unprecedented levels of fame and will go down in history as one of the Premier League’s all-time greatest players.
Beckham was the first footballer to become a true celebrity outside of the sport, and he remains one to this day. There is a new generation of players who have never seen Beckham play but still idolise him. Even those with absolutely no interest in football have heard of him and can recognise him.
Few players have so successfully made such use of their talents through dedicated hard work while at the same time mastered the media attention. While there are players who rival Beckham for skill, very few come close to his levels of fame or influence both in and outside of football.
In 2004, when Chelsea made Didier Drogba their most expensive player ever, Jose Mourinho’s response to those questioning the decision was, “judge him when he leaves the club”. At that point, the 26 year old has played in just three seasons of top flight football after making a late start to his professional career. In his first season, he came third in Ligue Un’s Golden Boot race and Liverpool had signed the younger top scorer, Djibril Cisse, for around half the amount a month before.
However, as history shows, Mourinho was proven correct. His critics were forced to swallow their words when Drogba became the first, and still only, African player to have reached 100 Premier League goals. Drogba seemed to thrive on the biggest stages while not letting his success get to his head. His off-pitch philanthropy was truly generous, while he was a genuinely fierce opponent on-pitch. While Drogba was not the first African player in the Premier League, it is arguable that he was the most important.
When Juninho arrived at Middlesbrough in 1995, the club went a bit crazy. They were selling Juninho burgers with hot samba sauce, there were police horses wearing hats reading “Born in Brazil, reborn in Middlesbrough”, and club sponsors put on a giant shirt flypast. At the time, he was the Brazilian Footballer of the Year and, according to chief executive Keith Lamb, “the most sought-after player in the world”.
There has been no other foreign player in English football history to join a club with which they had no prior affiliation and become as integral a part of it as easily as Juninho did at Middlesbrough. He cried genuine tears when the club were relegated and he was genuinely ecstatic when he helped guide the club to its first major honour when he returned there in 2002.
The treatment of Dennis Bergkamp by the tabloid press after he initially struggled in England was astounding to watch. One paper published a continual clock of his goal drought and another printed a picture of a net to remind him what a goal looked like. This was despite him coming third and second in consecutive Ballon d’Or competitions in the early 1990s.
However, despite the belief that the Premier League was the toughest in the world, Bergkamp went on to conquer it three times and while doing so, he showed the kind of skills that truly opened people’s eyes to how bringing in foreign talent can truly help the game, rather than hinder it.
Speaking in a team talk ahead of a game against Liverpool in 1998, Sir Alex Ferguson said that in 1995 “we lost the league at Anfield by not listening to instructions about McManaman”. He was referring to their 2 – 0 defeat three years earlier when Paul Ince had neglected his marking duties to give the forward space on the right hand side, which McManaman made use of to play a part in the opening goal before later scoring the second.
He was a truly fantastic player, he was rated as highly as Ryan Giggs and both Barcelona and Juventus made serious bids for him. However, McManaman stayed with Liverpool until the summer of 1999 when he became Britain’s first Bosman transfer of note and highest-paid player ever.
While these kind of moves are now commonplace, at the time they were almost unheard of. He was the first to break through many boundaries, become an English Champions League winner abroad and the first of his generation to simultaneously write a weekly newspaper column and play top-level football.
In November 1996 a report in the Independent said, “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”. It gives an insight into a time when a fee of £4.5 million was considered far too much for a player nearing retirement.
However, by the time he left in 2003, it was clear that it was a real bargain. Zola is symbolic of Chelsea’s change from mid-table strugglers to real title contenders. In the six seasons before he signed, the team had finished either eleventh or fourteenth, and during his seven seasons with them, they didn’t finish lower than sixth. He is still the only person to be named FWA Footballer of the year without having played a full season in England.
Before Rio Ferdinand moved to Leeds for £18 million in November 2000, the largest fee an English team had paid for a defender was the £10.6 million Manchester United paid for Jaap Stam in 1998. Ferdinand’s record remained until he broke it once again, moving to Old Trafford for £30 million in 2002. That record then remained until Eliaquim Mangala joined Manchester City in 2014.
However, Ferdinand’s impact goes far beyond economic factors. He was one of the most important players in shaping the style of the modern game. He redefined his position and demonstrated a kind of elegance that players try to emulate until this day.
Very few players have been as successful as Ruud Gullit has at challenging and changing perceptions. While Chelsea put out the first all-foreign Premier League XI in December 1999, it was Gullit who provided the foundation for the move.
When he arrived at Stamford Bridge in 1995, it was with very little celebration. England had not had a Ballon d’Or winner in the leagues since Southampton signed Kevin Keegan in 1980 and there were those who thought that a two-time European champion would be out of place. Furthermore, many assumed that at 32 years old, he was there just for one last big salary before retiring.
However, these assumptions were soon dismissed. In his first season, he was runner-up in the Footballer of the Year vote and he was an FA Cup winning player/manager by the end of his second season. He was also the third foreign coach in English top-flight history. Gullit was also a pioneer of midfield metronomy, having been moved into the position as his defensive teammates couldn’t keep up with him.