With the Premier League set to start once again this coming weekend, I have picked my best XI over the 25 year history of the competition. Considering Manchester United’s success (13 titles compared to the next most Chelsea with five), the Old Trafford outfit was always likely to have the most representatives. I expect plenty of disagreement though! Let me know what you think!
Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United mainly with cameos at Aston Villa & Manchester City): Schmeichel was famous for his intimidating physique; (6’4″ tall and weighing close to 16 stone during his playing days), and he wore specially made size XXXL football shirts. A fierce competitor, he was known for his loud, unstinting criticism of mistakes he believed the defenders in front of him committed with rows occasionally becoming physical with his team-mates.
For all his idiosyncrasies, the Great Dane played a key part in guiding United to five Premier League titles and of course the club’s finest hour, the 1999 Treble was Schmeichel’s final match as the club dramatically won the Champions League at the Nou Camp.
Denis Irwin (Manchester United): The Cork native established himself as one of the most important players in the United team that won a host of domestic and European trophies in his time there between 1990 and 2002.
Arguably the ultimate tribute to Irwin would be that Alex Ferguson regarded him as pound for pound his greatest ever signing. He is along with Roy Keane, the most successful Irish footballer ever in terms of trophies won.
Rio Ferdinand (West Ham United, Leeds United, Manchester United and QPR): Ferdinand is one of the most cultured centre-halves ever to play in the Premier League. He could definitely have done a job in midfield. The Londoner made his fledgling steps in the Premier League with West Ham before moving on to Leeds but Manchester United was where he earned ultimate glory.
He joined Manchester United in July 2002 for around £30million, breaking the world transfer fee record for a defender at the time. He featured in the PFA Team of the Year four times in his first six years with the club. Ferdinand was considered an atypical defensive product of English football due to his elegant, “continental” style of defensive play; in particular, he was singled out for his unique technical ability and confidence on the ball. He won six Premier League titles and the UEFA Champions League during his 12 year stint with Manchester United.
Ricardo Carvalho (Chelsea): The Portuguese was considered one of the best centre-backs at Euro 2004 and joined his former manager José Mourinho on a three-year contract after the tournament. He signed for a fee of €30 million (£20 million at the time) and performed extremely well in his first season with Chelsea, helping them win the Premier League title, their first top-flight domestic title in 50 years.
Very good in the air, both in defence and attack, Carvalho has always been a centre-half who stood out in particular for his intelligence, and ability to read the game and time his challenges. He is quick, good in the air and possesses superb technique and good passing ability, which has led him to be compared to the legendary Italian defender Franco Baresi.
Ashley Cole (Arsenal and Chelsea): Cole began his youth career at Arsenal and made his full debut for the club in November 1999, going on to make 228 appearances for the North London club. With Arsenal he won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and was an integral member of “The Invincibles” team of the 2003–’04 season, who went the entire league season undefeated. Cole also appeared in Arsenal’s first Champions League final in 2006, losing 2-1 to Barcelona.
In August 2006, after a protracted transfer saga, Cole completed a move to rivals Chelsea, with whom he won further honours, including the Premier League in the 2009-’10 season, four FA Cups and one UEFA Champions League.
Cole has won more FA Cups (7) than any other player and is one of only two players (along with Nicolas Anelka) to win a Premier League and FA Cup Double with two different clubs.
Frank Lampard (West Ham United and Chelsea): He secured a place in the West Ham first team by the 1997–’98 season, and the following year helped the team finish fifth in the Premier League, their highest-ever Premier League placing. In 2001, he moved to rival London club Chelsea for £11million. In 2014, he was released by Chelsea after 13 years of service. From his debut, Lampard was ever-present in the Chelsea first team and made 164 consecutive Premier League appearances, a record for an outfield player. He established himself as a prolific scorer at the west London club and was a key part of the sides which won back-to-back Premier League titles in 2004-’05 and 2005-’06.
A three-time Chelsea Player of the Year, Lampard is the club’s all-time top goalscorer with 211 goals in all competitions. Lampard is one of seven players, and the only midfielder, to have scored 150 or more goals in the Premier League and is second in the all-time assists list behind Ryan Giggs.
In 2005, Lampard was voted FWA Footballer of the Year and was runner-up for both the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or awards.
Roy Keane (Nottingham Forest and Manchester United): Whilst Keane played for four professional clubs during his career, it’s his 12 year stint at Manchester United for which he is most remembered. Keane was a dominating box-to-box midfielder, noted for his aggressive and highly competitive style of play, an attitude that helped him excel as captain of Manchester United from 1997 until his sudden departure in late 2005.
Keane captained Manchester United to the famous treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1998-’99. He gave a performance for the ages in the Champions League semi-final that year against Juventus in Turin as United came back from 2-0 behind to win 2-3 on the night and 3-4 on aggregate. Keane however received a yellow card and was suspended for the final.
The following season Keane was voted PFA Player’s Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year at the end of the season after leading United to their sixth Premier League title in eight years. Keane would captain this team until he was unceremoniously effectively sacked by manager Alex Ferguson in 2005, while many view Keane as “the best leader the Premier League has ever seen”.
Paul Scholes (Manchester United): is the most decorated English club footballer of all-time having won a total of 25 trophies, featuring 11 Premier League titles and two Champions League titles.
He first trained with Manchester United at the age of 14 after being spotted by a scout visiting his school and turned professional in 1993 aged 18. He has received praise from players including Xavi, who called him “the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years”. Thierry Henry has cited Scholes as the greatest player in Premier League history.
Scholes made 718 appearances for United, the third-highest number of appearances of any player for the club.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United): only played for six years (2003-’09) in the English Premier League but what an impact he had.
—Former Manchester United player George Best on the 18-year-old Ronaldo in 2003.
Ronaldo netted the only goal in the Manchester derby in May 2007—his 50th goal for the club—as Manchester United claimed their first Premier League title in four years. As a result of his performances, he amassed a host of personal awards for the season. He won the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Player’s Player, Fans’ Player, and Young Player of the Year awards, as well as the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award, becoming the first player to win all four main PFA and FWA honours.
Ronaldo scored a total of 42 goals in all competitions in the 2007-’08 season and was hailed as “a better player than George Best and Denis Law” by Johan Cruyff. He was runner-up for the Ballon D’Or award in 2007 and finished third in the FIFA World Player of the Year award. His 31 league goals earned him the Premier League Golden Boot, as well as the European Golden Shoe, which made him the first winger to win the latter award.
United went on to win the Champions League in 2008 after a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea with Ronaldo scoring a fine header in a 1-1 draw after extra-time but he missed his penalty in the shoot-out. As the Champions League top scorer, Ronaldo was named the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year.
He additionally received the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year awards for the second consecutive season. United also won the Premier League for the third time during his stint at the club.
He subsequently became United’s first Ballon d’Or winner since George Best in 1968, and the first Premier League player to be named the FIFA World Player of the Year. He left United at the end of the 2008-’09 season for a then world record fee of €94million as he moved to Real Madrid.
Alan Shearer (Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United): Shearer’s playing career was largely about goals. Such was his goalscoring record that he deserved to win more than the one Premier League title which he did achieve when Blackburn Rovers just about got over the line at the end of the 1994-’95 season.
He was already a decent goalscorer for Southampton with whom he played from 1988-’92 but reached a stratospheric level at Rovers with 31 goals in 1993-’94, taking them to second place. Shearer and Rovers went one better the following season, his deadly partnership with Chris Sutton yielding 34 goals that ultimately swung the title race. After that magical summer of Euro ’96, Shearer came home to Newcastle for a then world record £15million fee.
His goal contributions were legendary – 25 in his first season, 23 in 1999-’00, the same amount in 2001-’02 and 22 in 2003-’04. Seldom has a player been so revered by a set of fans as Shearer is by the Toon Army. Alas, further silverware eluded him, but what a highlights reel he can point to, many of which were rockets from long range.
Eric Cantona (Manchester United): Enigmatic, egotistical, excellent. “King Cantona” is simply unique and will forever be adored by Manchester United fans who pay no attention to his flaws and foibles. He arrived at Old Trafford from hated rivals Leeds United just as the Premier League era was beginning. Cantona cost £1.2million; an amazing bargain.
United had struggled in the beginning to that first Premier League campaign but, inspired by Cantona, they ended up winning the title by 10 points, their first since 1967. The Frenchman scored 18 times as United retained their title and his two penalties in the FA Cup final saw them complete the Double.
That infamous kung-fu kick curtailed his involvement the following season and United promptly lost out in the title race and the Cup final. His god-like reputation was confirmed upon his return, as United hauled in Newcastle’s 12-point advantage to claim another title, following it up with another the next year. Cantona left football shocked when he announced his retirement in 1997. His goals had the same effect – that volley against Wimbledon, free-kick rocket against Arsenal, the crucial winner at Newcastle and the chip against Sunderland. Incroyable.
Team in Full (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Carvalho, R. Ferdinand, A. Cole; Lampard, Keane, Scholes, Ronaldo; Cantona, Shearer
Manager: Alex Ferguson (Manchester United): 13 Premier League title wins, two Champions League titles, five FA Cups, 1 FIFA Club World Cup and 1 Intercontinental Cup in his 27 years as Manchester United manager. Fergie was blessed to have a board who backed him (he went his first four years at the club without winning a trophy, something which would not happen today at an elite club), he was also lucky that United happened to be at the top when Sky’s money was starting to be pumped into English football. His record is second to none however and he ranks up there with Busby, Paisley and Shankly as one of the greatest managers of all-time.
Substitutes: David Seaman, Gary Neville, Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry