Football: SIMPLY THE BEST

Our top 20 Premiership players of 1996

1

ALAN SHEARER

The winner last year, in '96 he was even better. It says much for the esteem in which he is held that, unlike many of his predecessors, the world's most expensive player is rarely berated as overpriced. At 26, the complete centre forward: strong, skilful and lethal, Shearer surely now ranks among the best Britain has ever produced. He was able to rise above the general mediocrity at Blackburn in the first half of the year, and is having to do much the same at Newcastle. Close to repeating his Premiership pre-eminence at international level, following a brilliant Euro 96.

2

ERIC CANTONA

A melancholy autumn should not detract from the inspirational contribution the Footballer of the Year made to Manchester United's Double. Fully acclimitised to English football, there was nothing opposing defenders could do to distract him, even on the temperatmental side. If he rekindles that extraordinary form in the second half of this season, United will surely retain the Premiership.

3

STEVE McMANAMAN

A breathrough year for the Bootle 24-year-old, who has gone from being one of Liverpool's many good footballers, to the man who plays rhythm in the Mersey beat. The best dribbler in the league (and at Euro 96) his ability to drift behind the front runners, carving out opportunities for himself and others, may give the Anfield side a title-winning edge - though he can expect more man-markers after Sheffield Wednesday's recent success in shackling him. Now needs to work on his finishing.

4

ROBBIE FOWLER

Still only 2, he beat Ian Rush to 00 goals, and is capable of eclipsing the Welshman's legend. Has a telepathic understanding with McManaman already, and there are signs that he is belatedly beginning to develop some sort of striking relationship with Collymore. After an injury-plagued opening to the season, Fowler is now finding the net with daunting regularity. Lacks Shearer's all-round qualities but is his equal as a finisher.

5

DAVID BECKHAM

The player to have made the most progress in '96. Twelve months ago he was not sure of his place in Manchester United's first team. Now he is their creative lynchpin. At 2 he already looks destined to replace Gazza as England's most gifted midfield player - in some eyes he has already done so. A rare combination of technique and tenacity make him confident enough to attempt the outrageous - as Wimbledon discovered to their cost.

6

PETER SCHMEICHEL

It would be interesting to know how many Christmas cards he received from his defenders. One of the defining images of Manchester United's current success is Schmeichel screaming at them after an opposing striker has been given enough space to shoot well wide. A constant, if irritating, reminder of his perfectionism and competitiveness. Despite several high- profile howlers in 996, Schmeichel's match-savers have been more important, and he remains marginally ahead of Seaman, partly because of his superior distribution.

7

DAVID SEAMAN

Showed for England what Arsenal fans have long known: that Seaman is worth a goal a game. Less athletic than Schmeichel, he remains a massive penalty area presence, as adept in the air as at shot-stopping. Like many before him, is playing his best football in his mid-thirties. A prolonged absence with his rib injury will seriously dent Arsenal's title challenge.

8

DAVID BATTY

If Asprilla was the signing that cost Newcastle the championship, Batty is the one who did the most to maintain their challenge. Twelve months after felling Graeme Le Saux, his combativeness is now celebrated for rather more positive reasons, and there are even indications that it can be transferred successfully to the international arena. Has quickly established himself as Newcastle's most consistent midfielder, though that may not be much of an accolade...

9

PETER BEARDSLEY

The Peter Pan of English football. Will be 36 next month, but has lost none of his capacity to bamboozle defenders or conjure vital goals. Has sometimes appeared uncertain of his role in Kevin Keegan's constant reshapings, but despite the arrival of close to pounds 30m worth of talent in 996, Beardsley's place has never been in serious jeopary.

0

ROY KEANE

Would almost certainly be higher, but for the series of injuries which have deprived Manchester United of his services for most of the current season. His value was perfectly illustrated in the Cup final when he was the key figure in a United midfield that first out-fought, then outplayed their much-vaunted Liverpool counterparts. United's European aspirations surely depend on his fitness and focus.

IAN WRIGHT

A year that began in turmoil (bust-ups, transfer requests, lack of form) is ending in triumph (the Premierhip's leading scorer, back in the England squad) though the self-destructive temperament remains a constant. Somewhat surprisingly, this most instinctive of players is thriving under Arsene Wenger's cerebral tutelage, perhaps because Wenger is wise enough to allow Wright to be himself. Has lost none of his speed. Or his hunger.

2

LES FERDINAND

Reports of his desmise, following Alan Shearer's arrival on Tyneside, appear to be somewhat premature. Desite the fact that both appear to play exactly the same role, the two have dovetailed impressively and Ferdinand cannot be blamed for Newcastle's unconvincing first half to the season. In full flight, he is an awesome sight: powerful, determined and courageous. Not bad in the air, either.

3

TONY ADAMS

Like his Arsenal team-mate Wright, Adams' year has got better and better. His began with serious injury, and the only prolonged action he saw in the first nine months was as England defensive stalwart during Euro 96. His confession to being an alcoholic appears to have had a cathartic affect. Leaner and quicker, he has responded to Arsene Wenger's confidence in his all-round ability with some memorable forays upfield.

4

TEDDY SHERINGHAM

One of the most intelligent users of the ball in the English game, the signs are that Sheringham is growing increasingly frustrated by Tottenham's failure to acquire players of similar talent. As well as his thoughtful probing from the withdrawn forward position, Sheringham is a dead-ball specialist and dominating in the air. There would be no shortage of takers if he did decide to leave White Hart Lane.

5

ROBBIE EARLE

In those supposedly `disgusting' tabloid pen pictures of the Crazy Gang, Vinnie Jones could find nothing worse to say of his midfield ally than: "A bit too much the perfect pro." Earle also scores brave, vital goals (averaging one every four games) and has few peers in the Premiership in terms of helping both to create and destroy. Might have taken David Platt's place in the England squad had he been with a more fashionable club.

6

PAUL MERSON

The last 2 months have seen Merson play the best football of his career, with first Bruce Rioch and then Arsene Wenger preferring to use him in central roles rather than on the wing, where he was so often marooned during George Graham's later years. Stronger and quicker than before, his passing can be a delight, his finishing (despite Saturday's blinder against Aston Villa) less so.

7

SLAVEN BILIC

Had Newcastle spent half the fee wasted luring Faustino Asprilla to Tyneside on the West Ham centre-back, they would probably have won the League. Prone to the odd lapse, but on his game the best defender in the Premiership, combining the traditional virtues of speed, strength and timing with the continental ones of ball-playing skill and ruthlessness. His English counterparts can only watch, admire and - one hopes - learn.

8

RUUD GULLIT

It was the footballing cliche of 96. No matter how long the lay-off, or how short the appearance as a substitute, Gullit was the best player on the field. One of the greats in his prime, he remains a delight in his dotage, apparently playing the game in a different time zone. Would be far higher, and his Chelsea team more successful, were he able to play more frequently.

9

DENIS IRWIN

His contribution to Manchester United's defensive solidity is freqently taken for granted, but never by Alex Ferguson or his team-mates. Superb timer of his tackles, Irwin's astute positional sense means he is seldom out-run despite a lack of pace. Links well when going forward and a fearsome striker of the dead ball.

20

DWIGHT YORKE

Invigorated by Brian Little's clever management, Yorke's superlative form was a major factor in Aston Villa's success last season. For a time he seemed to score with every effort on goal, while his clever running made him virtually impossible to suppress. Though less prolific this term, there are signs that both he and Villa are rediscovering their best form.

BUBBLING UNDER

2 Andrei Kanchelskis

22 Georgi Kinkladze

23 Gareth Southgate

24 Colin Hendry

25 Ryan Giggs

26 Gary McAllister

27 Sasa Curcic

28 Andy Hinchcliffe

29 Sol Campbell

30 David Ginola

3 Michael Thomas

32 Mark Draper

33 Matt Le Tissier

34 Jason McAteer

35 Aljosa Asanovic

36 Juninho

37 Mark Wright

38 Stuart Pearce

39 Dennis Wise

40 Dennis Bergkamp

LAST YEAR'S TOP 20

Alan Shearer

2 Les Ferdinand

3 Robert Lee

4 Nick Barmby

5 Robbie Fowler

6 Jurgen Klinsmann

7 Steve Stone

8 Teddy Sheringham

9 Tony Yeboah

0 Dennis Bergkamp

Peter Beardsley

2 Jamie Redknapp

3 Ryan Giggs

4 Eric Cantona

5 Tony Adams

6 Matt Le Tissier

7 Mark Draper

8 Colin Hendry

9 Peter Schmeichel

20 Ruud Gullit

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