I’m fairly confident in my picks, but know the difficulties of picking such a side. The league has changed incredibly even since the time I have followed it, and going back to 1996, it looked like a place utterly different from the one it is now. Nevertheless, we still love the game, fans still have their heroes, and I reckon from the wreckage of confusion, we can begin to pull out enough to warrant a decent looking debate.
1. Peter Schmeichel
2. Gary Neville
3. Ashley Cole
4. Tony Adams
5. Rio Ferdinand
7. Cristiano Ronaldo
11 Ryan Giggs
6. Patrick Veiria
8. Gianfranco Zola
10. Ruud Van Nistlerooy
9. Alan Shearer
Giving it some thought, I reckon that defenders (particularly full backs) are the most difficult picks. I suppose this is indicative of the entertainment “goalscoring” factors. Defenders are simply not there to entertain, unless they are Titus Bramble, or Bjørn Tore Kvarme.
I chose Neville, as I think he was genuinely the first defender to cross a ball with such precision. I actually think it was he who was so responsible for the success of David Beckham- his forward movement creating space for Beckham’s strong suits to be maximised.
I was physically straining with the input of Ashley Cole, but personality aside, I think he’s an absolutely fantastic full-back-like Neville, but with the attacking flair. He can pass and move in a way unlike any full-back I have ever seen, and this includes Roberto Carlos, because he couldn’t defend! I saw Cole live recently, and was astounded at his movement, and the way he pinned back the opposition full-back. I don’t think anyone truly recognised his class until he did a fine number on Ronaldo in 04. Astonishing work-rate, and deservedly in this side.
The centre halves were certainly more difficult picks. Leaving out Desailly, Carragher, Vidic, McGrath, Stam was not an easy task. But I stand by my picks. For me, Tony Adams was in the Bobby Moore class, from what I have heard. I’m in no position to judge that, and the man did not win a World Cup, or Champs League. But I do think that the man was utterly inspirational, unlike any other. I notice John Terry going missing and missing his man at set pieces particularly, and I’m just not convinced by his footballing abilities at all, in terms of the very top draw. Adams, for me, had the lot.
I recently heard Rio Ferdinand being described as the Champagne of Defenders- how apt. And I think this is true. It’s difficult to compare eras even stretching beyond 2000, but he is a genuine footballer. He can pass, he can track, and is extremely brave. I can think of these two as an absolutely perfect partnership. Attack now starts from the back. If you look at the very top sides, and how quickly they can set up attacks, they do so from the first third. People like Ferdinand, and more so Carrick, Pirlo, and Xavi (as midfielders that sit deep), are so valuable for a reason, particularly with devastating wingers and front men. If you watch Rio, he’s never under pressure, his first touch, and when he shifts from one foot to another, are absolutely phenomenal, and quite unlike any other.
I start with arguably the easiest choice- Ronaldo. Beckham might have pushed him reasonably close once upon a time. But you can’t look beyond the weight of goals and assists. He’s re-invented the concept of the right winger, so much so that midfielders now score goals because they have to, not just as an added bonus. More than 40 goals in one season has put him in his own bracket, which is why Kaka at £100m for anyone’s money would be absolutely ridiculous. Ronaldo plays in a different way, he has a different tempo quite unlike I have ever seen.
Ryan Giggs is, for my money, the most under-rated footballer on the planet. Even looking at him as a veteran sitting in the middle of the park, his footballing abilities are shown by the fact that he still needs like a guy with an exceptional football brain, as good as there is around. Even so, go back 7 or 8 years, and he would run at full-backs at incredible pace, cutting inside and out, and always moving between 10 or 15 goals a season. That shift of direction put him where full-backs were uncomfortable, and he continues to prove a quality player and model professional for United.
The middle two were probably the most difficult picks. I’ve not picked Gerrard, Keane, Scholes, Petit, Gascoigne and Lampard, to name but a few. Why Veiria over Keane? Physically, he probably had the edge, and he moved more naturally for me. Domination of a match was natural for Veiria, unlike Keane, who’s personality was what made his impact so special. Veiria grew into the role at Arsenal, and single-handedly gave Arsenal the edge. Keane greatest strength was also his weakness, and continues to be this day, and that is that he was fundamentally a maverick, whereas I think if I were building a side, Veiria would be my man to protect the back four, and build attacks.
I believe that Gianfranco Zola was the finest player to have ever played in England. In a team of gifted foreigners, he was the one who showed exactly what foreigners could bring to England, more so than budget buys who could summon the odd piece of magic to please the crowds. You hear ex-pros speak about his willingness and desire to be the best, and this is what makes what he produced so special. Zola did things no other footballer in the premiership could dream of doing. I am not sure about weight of goals as opposed to Lampard of Gerrard, but I think that for the position of “number 8” behind the front two, there’s no other guy I’d rather have.
Again, no Henry? No Owen? No Ian Wright? No Robbie Fowler? Bergkamp? Matt Le Tissier? Andy Cole? Strikers are probably the most difficult choices, are there are so many that score goals prolifically in the premiership to fill just two places. Alan Shearer was powerful, linked play well, score with his head as much as his feet, and proved he could do it in a title winning side. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself, and everything else besides.
I suppose Ruud Van Nistlerooy was more of a difficult choice, particularly over Thierry Henry. People criticised him for being a “tap in” merchant, but as Gary Lineker outlined in his column yesterday, people forget that he’d been making that run all game. I bet Van Nistlerooy’s distance covered was equal to all other “workhorses” in Premiership history. To be honest, although he wasn’t in the Premiership as long as Shearer, his goal to game ratio is as good, if not better, than any other. And, simply, he just did not ever miss his chances. If my life was in the balance, he’s the one I’d trust to stick the ball in the net.
I know there will be those of you who probably say its difficult to produce a comparative list since the Premiership’s inception, and I hold my hand up to being biased towards the more recent past. But nevertheless, I am confident in these picks. Money can change the way we look at the game, and as styles change, tactics change, and the tempo changes, I think football, by its nature, will always have the incredibly timeless quality to produce such gifted individuals. These are our modern day gladiators, our modern day gods. And it’s great that there are so many more besides.