Since its inaugural season 23 years ago, the Premier League has gone onto become, if not the best, then certainly the most watched league in the world. In that time several of the world’s best players have graced England’s top clubs.
According to a new online poll conducted by PA Sport, none were better than Cristiano Ronaldo, who came out on top of a list that included the likes of Ryan Giggs, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Steven Gerrard.
With fan loyalties perhaps playing a significant part in the results, here is an alternative top 10 list, based on the players who have had the most impact on the Premier League.
1. Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
Henry arrived at Arsenal as a 21-year-old winger who had collected a winner’s medal at the 1998 World Cup a year earlier, but who had just endured a disappointing six months at Italian giants Juventus. His early appearances on the flank in England were the cause for derision rather than adulation. Then Arsene Wenger moved him through the middle and everything suddenly, spectacularly clicked. Henry is perhaps the prototype Premier League player: a combination of searing pace, physicality and brilliant technique. Eight years after arriving, he left as Arsenal’s all-time record goalscorer and as arguably the greatest ever Premier League player, having scored 175 times in England’s top flight.
2. Roy Keane (Manchester United)
The fiercest competitor the Premier League has yet seen, Keane was the beating heart of a Manchester United team that dominated the Premier League through its first decade. He was manager Alex Ferguson’s physical embodiment on the pitch, ensuring standards never slipped and intimidating opponents to ensure United often had an advantage before the first whistle even sounded. But it does the Irishman a great disservice just to focus on that mental and physical toughness. Keane was a world-class box-to-box midfielder, capable of breaking down an opposition attack on the edge of his own box one moment and popping up to score at the other end the next.
3. Alan Shearer (Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United)
At the start of the Premier League era, Blackburn were the Chelsea or Manchester City of the day, blessed with a wealthy benefactor to bankroll success. None of the money they spent, though, came close to being as shrewd as the British record transfer fee that bought Shearer to Ewood Park in 1992. The complete striker, Shearer scored 30 league goals for three seasons running between 1993 and 1996, helping Blackburn to win the Premier League title in 1994-95. While a serious injury a year after another British record transfer to his boyhood club Newcastle United in 1996 took away some of his pace, he remained a fearsome penalty-box presence. His record of 260 Premier League goals is likely to stand for some time.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
Ronaldo’s stay in England was not particularly long, but his impact was huge. A raw winger who appeared more in love with tricks than goals when he was first snapped up by Manchester United in 2003, when he left six years later he was the Premier League’s most devastating force and arguably performing at a level never seen in the competition either before or since. The Portuguese star scored 66 goals in his final three seasons to end United’s longest title drought of the Premier League era and land three successive titles. It’s fair to say he hasn’t done badly since leaving Old Trafford, either.
5. Ryan Giggs (Manchester United)
Voted the Premier League’s best player for its 20th anniversary, Giggs’ consistency and longevity is unmatched. The Welshman incredibly scored in each of the Premier League’s first 23 seasons before failing to make it 24 in his final campaign last year. He retired aged 40 as the most decorated player in the history of the English game, with 34 trophies, including 13 Premier League winners’ medals. Giggs’ dedication to his profession was unmatched and his intelligence to adapt his game through his career was amazing to behold. Bursting onto the scene as a flying winger, in his later years he became an incredibly astute and decisive central midfielder.
6. Eric Cantona (Manchester United)
While he may not be the best player of the Premier League era, his influence on the competition’s surge in popularity and the success of its flagship team is arguably unmatched. Snapped up for just £1.2 million from then champions Leeds United in 1992, Cantona changed the balance of power in the English game. A litany of disciplinary problems had blighted his career at home in France, but, while he was far from controversy free, at Old Trafford he found a club and a set of supporters that embraced his flair and cool, obdurate demeanor. The winner of four Premier League titles, Cantona’s high point came in 1995-96 when he almost single-handedly dragged Manchester United to the championship.
7. Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal)
After arriving from Inter Milan, Bergkamp initially struggled in the English game at in an Arsenal side experiencing a wasted season under Bruce Rioch. But when Arsene Wenger arrived he became the center piece of a side that won three Premier League titles. Bergkamp was also the first major overseas star who helped change the Premier League to a more international competition and a more technically proficient one. Possession a brilliant footballing mind and the silkiest of touches, his hat-trick against Leicester City in 1997 stand prominent among the competition’s greatest moments.
8. Patrick Vieira (Arsenal, Manchester City)
While Arsene Wenger’s early Arsenal teams had plenty of flair, they also had a crucial toughness and mental edge required to succeed in the English game. No player more embodied that edge to their style than Vieira. The defining image of the French midfielder is of him marauding through the center of the pitch, with his telescopic legs reaching out to snatch the ball away from the grasp of bewildered opponents. One of Wenger’s first signings at Arsenal, Vieira enabled them to stand toe-to-toe with Manchester United and, in particular, his fiercest foe, Roy Keane. It is no coincidence that Arsenal have failed to lift the Premier League since he left for Juventus in 2005.
9. Paul Scholes (Manchester United)
While he stood opposed to the glitz and glamour that surrounded the Premier League as it exploded in popularity, Scholes’ ability still shone through. A diminutive support striker when he came broke through into the Manchester United first team as part of a remarkable generation of talent, including David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, Scholes blossomed into the one of the greatest central midfielders of his generation. Perhaps appreciated more by his peers than the casual fan, Scholes could deliver both raking passes and blistering shots with pinpoint accuracy. In total the England international would win 11 Premier League titles.
10. Frank Lampard (Chelsea, Manchester City)
The son of a West Ham legend, Lampard had to repeatedly conquer doubts about his own footballing merits through his early career at Upton Park. There were plenty of question marks, too, when Chelsea paid £11 million for his signature in 2001. It’s fair to say, the outlay proved a shrewd investment. A midfielder with an eye for goal on a par with none other in the Premier League era, Lampard got into double figures in goals for 10 consecutive Premier League seasons. His remarkable ability to arrive onto the ball around the edge of the box at the perfect time was crucial in Chelsea winning three Premier League titles. Since moving to Manchester City last summer, Lampard has moved up to fourth in the Premier League’s all-time top-scorer list with 176 -- and counting.