The Premier League took its present form as the glittering highest tier of English football only after 1992, before which it was simply known as the First Division. Since the game’s origin in 1863 in England itself, it had gained widespread popularity and was widely discussed of as it became older over the decades.
Many teams have displayed scintillating football over the years gone by, mesmerising spectators witnessing it live and beyond. Clubs with rich history and elite eras have set a benchmark throughout these years and have graced the Premier League since its inception in the 90s. But the pre-Premier League era had been a different ballgame altogether.
War periods and racial discrimination had been a constant hindrance in bringing in talents from all over the globe. But even after all these interruptions, the English top tier has been lucky enough to be able to live the legacy left behind thousands of legends through generations. From the famous Merseysides to the rainy Manchester suburbs, ranging from the lakes of Wales to the towers of London, England has seen it all. In this rticle, we present you a rough countdown to the top 15 pre Premier League players ever.
Here are the 15 greatest English top division players before the Premier League era –
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15. Nat Lofthouse
Lofthouse, born in Bolton, bred in Bolton, and a Bolton Wanderers player from first to last, scored 285 goals in more than 500 games for the club. He was capped 33 times for the England national football team between 1950 and 1958, scoring 30 goals. He joined Wanderers in 1939 as an amateur and, with so many footballers away at war, played his first senior match nearly 2 years later at the tender age of 15.
On 25 May 1952, Lofthouse earned the title ‘Lion of Vienna’ after scoring his second goal in England’s 3–2 victory over Austria. In doing so he was elbowed in the face, tackled from behind, and finally brought down by the goalkeeper.
In 1956, he finished as the First Division’s top scorer with 33 goals. In 1957, he assumed captaincy of the club. In 1958, he achieved his crowning glory, scoring twice – including a controversial bundled second which sent the ball and goalkeeper Harry Gregg into the net – as Bolton overcame Manchester United to win the FA Cup. All the while, he kept scoring for his country as well as for his club. Come 1960, aged 35 and bothered by niggling knee and ankle injuries, he retired to become Wanderers’ reserve team trainer.
14. John Charles
Before the dawning of a golden era at Elland Road in the early 1960’s, following the appointment of Don Revie as manager, Leeds United were famed more than anything else for their association with a staggering talent named John Charles, the Gentle Giant. Rated by many as the greatest all-round footballer ever to come from Britain, Charles was equally adept as a forward or defender due to his strength, pace, technique, vision, ability in the air and eye for goal.
Charles made his league debut against Blackburn Rovers also in April 1949, playing at centre-half. This prompted a debate as to where Charles should play in the team, but he remained at centre-half until the 1952–53 season. In October 1952, he was switched to Centre forward and immediately started to score, with 11 goals in 6 games. In 1955 he was appointed club captain and during the 1955-56 season Leeds won promotion to the first division with Charles in sparkling form scoring 29 goals in 42 appearances. In the following season Charles scored a new club top flight record tally of 38 goals in 40 league appearances as Leeds secured an 8th-place finish in the first division, before moving finally moving away from the club.
He was transferred to Juventus in 1957 for a world record fee, scored 29 goals in his first season in the defensively supreme Serie A, won the Italian Footballer of the Year award and prompted the club to three championships and two cups in his five years in Turin. In 1997 he was voted as the best ever foreign player to have played for Juve. He has since been included in the Football League 100 Legends and was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.
Checkout: Greatest Leeds United Players Ever
13. Denis Law
A statue of Denis Law stands on the Stretford End concourse as a lasting monument to his impact on Old Trafford, and is a fitting tribute to one of United’s true living legends. His career as a football player began at Second Division Huddersfield Town in 1956. After four years at Huddersfield, he was signed by Manchester City for a transfer fee of £55,000, which set a new British record. Law spent one year there before Torino bought him for £110,000, this time setting a new record fee for a transfer involving a British player. Although he played well in Italy, he found it difficult to settle there and signed for Manchester United in 1962, setting another British record transfer fee of £115,000.
The first time United fans saw Law score for the Reds was on 18 August 1962, on his debut against West Bromwich Albion. He was to repeat the feat a further 236 times for United. The ultimate goalscorer, his flair, spirit and genuine love for the game made him a hero of a generation and he revelled in the nickname The King. His reign lasted for 13 years.
Law helped transform Manchester United into the successful team of the 1960s alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton and George Best. They won the FA Cup in his first season and were runners-up in the League with Law scoring 46 goals – more than any United player before or since. The next season, Law won the European Footballer of the Year award, and Manchester United won the League with Law as United’s and the First Division’s top goal scorer. Law was club captain for three seasons and in 1968 he crowned a glittering domestic career when United clinched the European Cup.
12. Kevin Keegan
Kevin Keegan was quite simply the footballing superstar of the Seventies. He has been described as “arguably the first superstar English player to attract the modern media spotlight” He began his playing career at Scunthorpe United in 1968, before moving to Liverpool in 1971. He can take much of the credit for the trophies which arrived at Anfield between 1971 and 1977.
‘Robbery with violence’ was how Bill Shankly described the capture of Keegan from Scunthorpe for a measly £35,000. Energetic, enthusiastic and 100 per cent committed to the Kop cause, Keegan was a born winner who provided Shankly’s second great side with the spark that ignited a renewed assault on the major honours. Fast, skilful and courageous, he was a handful for opposition defenders and was by now widely regarded as one of the finest forwards in the land. Despite standing at just 5ft 8ins tall, he was surprisingly adept in aerial combat and, as Leeds skipper Billy Bremner discovered to his cost, could also pack a punch.
At Liverpool, Keegan won three First Division titles, the UEFA Cup twice, the FA Cup and the European Cup. He also gained his first England cap in 1972, before moving to Hamburger SV in the summer of 1977. At Hamburg, he was named European Footballer of the Year in 1978 and 1979, won the Bundesliga title in 1978–79, and reached the European Cup final in 1980. Keegan moved to Southampton that summer, and spent two seasons at the club before a transfer to Newcastle United in the English second division in 1982. He helped Newcastle to promotion in his second season, and retired from football in 1984, having been capped 63 times for England, scoring 21 goals.
11. Peter Doherty
This visionary player from Northern Ireland made over 400 appearances for five English Clubs in the 1930s and 1940s, winning the League title with Manchester City in 1937. An inside left, he was one of the top players of his time. A swift, elusive forward with tremendous stamina, Peter Doherty was known for skillful ability with the ball, with it even claimed that the phrase ‘the beautiful game’ was coined in appreciation of Doherty’s play.
A pre-war hero, who many older fans argue was even better than Colin Bell and few also regarded him as the greatest Manchester City player ever. Doherty scored 82 goals in 134 appearances before the Second World War cut his career short. He was in the first group of 22 players to be inducted into the English Football Players Hall of Fame.
In his autobiography, Sunderland legend Len Shackleton wrote of Doherty:
“Peter Doherty was surely the genius among geniuses. Possessor of the most baffling body swerve in football, able to perform all the tricks with the ball, owning a shot like the kick of a mule, and, with all this, having such tremendous enthusiasm for the game that he would work like a horse for ninety minutes. That was pipe-smoking Peter Doherty, the Irish redhead who, I am convinced, had enough football skill to stroll through a game smoking that pipe-and still make the other twenty-one players appear second-raters. But of course Peter never strolled through anything. His energy had to be seen to be appreciated.”
Checkout : Greatest Manchester City Players ever
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10. Duncan Edwards
Duncan Edwards was one of the Busby Babes, the young Manchester United team formed under manager Matt Busby in the mid-1950s, playing 151 matches for the club. Edwards began his Manchester United career in the youth team and made several appearances for the team that won the first ever FA Youth Cup in 1953, but by the time of the final had already made his debut for the first team. On 4 April 1953, he played in a Football League First Division match against Cardiff City, which United lost 4–1, aged just 16 years and 185 days, making him the youngest player ever to play in the top division.
Edwards had not become a great footballer simply because of bulldozing tactics but he had matured ahead of his years and was shaped so magnificently (his height was more often given at 6ft) that opponents of the same age might as well have tried to barge over an oak tree than knock him off the ball.
One of eight players who died as a result of the Munich air disaster, he survived initially but succumbed to his injuries in hospital two weeks later. With seven of his team‑mates already among the dead, the doctors treating Edwards reckoned it was a miracle he survived as long as he did. They were devastating injuries: damaged kidneys, a collapsed lung, a broken pelvis, multiple fractures of his right thigh, crushed ribs and a litany of internal injuries.
Famously, he asked the assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, during one period of semi-consciousness ,”What time is the kick off against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn’t miss that match”. The initial casualty list had described him as “mortally injured” but his final breath came 15 days later. He died at 2:15 a.m. on 21 February 1958.
It has left so many unanswered questions. How might England have done in the 1958 World Cup if Edwards had been rampaging through the middle? Where would he be in the pantheon of football greats? We will never have the answers to these questions.
9. Kenny Dalglish
Dalglish joined Liverpool from Scottish giants Celtic on 10 August 1977 for a club and British record fee of £440,000. He was brought in as a direct replacement for star forward Kevin Keegan, who had left the club to join Hamburg. His years at Liverpool were among the club’s most successful periods, as he won six Football League First Divisions, two FA Cups, four League Cups, seven FA Charity Shields, three European Cups and one UEFA Super Cup. For these achievements and his style of play he was given the name King Kenny by Liverpool supporters.
Dalglish won the Ballon d’Or Silver Award in 1983, the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1983, and the FWA Footballer of the Year in 1979 and 1983. Dalglish became player-manager of Liverpool in 1985 after the resignation of Joe Fagan, winning a further three First Divisions, two FA Cups and four FA Charity Shields. He finished his playing career with Liverpool having scored 172 goals in 515 appearances.
In 2006 he topped a Liverpool fans’ poll of “100 Players Who Shook the Kop”. He has been inducted into both the Scottish and English Football Halls of Fame. He is widely regarded as the finest player to have ever worn the Red of Liverpool.
Checkout : Greatest Liverpool Players Ever
8. Gordon Banks
Widely regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, England’s World Cup-winning No. 1 was one of the inaugural inductees into the National Football Museum Football Hall of Fame. For 10 years, Gordon Banks was indisputably the best in the world.
Banks made his first League appearances for his hometown club of Chesterfield before going on to appear almost 300 times for Leicester City. When a young Peter Shilton emerged at Leicester, Banks moved onto Stoke City, where over the course of nearly 200 more games he became a club hero.
Despite winning the League Cup with each club, it is his performances for England that will go down in history. In 1966, Banks didn’t concede a goal from open play on the way to the World Cup final. When the reigning champions came to defend their crown in 1970, Banks was established as one of the world’s finest. It is perhaps his save in England’s 1-0 group stage loss to Brazil that secures his place in history. Diving low to his far right, Banks stretched to reach the great Pelé’s goalbound header. With the Brazillian forward already celebrating what appeared to be a certain goal, Banks miraculously managed to not only to get a hand to the ball, but to flick it up, over the bar and to safety. It was one of the defining images from arguably the greatest World Cup tournament. Pelé later said “it was the greatest save I’ve ever seen”, and it is still known as ‘the save of the century’.
7. Tom Finney
Tom Finney was a national footballing treasure and a perfect gentleman, a gifted, wholesome, universally popular figure who stood for all that was best about his beloved game, both on the field and off it. It was a widely held opinion that he was the most complete all-round forward in the world.
He played for his home town team, Preston North End, for his entire career. Signed as a teenager, Finney made over 400 appearances for Preston. The versatile attacker could play in any forward position, left or right, on the wing or at centre-forward, and won his 76 England caps on either side of the pitch.
Sir Tom Finney was one of the greatest players of the post-war period, described by Bill Shankly as “the greatest player I ever saw, bar none”. A prolific goal scorer, Finney was also great at creating goals for other players: the ideal team man.
6. George Best
George Best’s extraordinary natural talent not only made him one of the most iconic and entertaining players there has been, but the finest from the British Isles. He also once earned the description of “the greatest footballer in the world”… from Pele.
Best may also be the greatest footballer to have played for Manchester United, even if he’s not necessarily Manchester United’s greatest ever player. Best had made his debut for United in April 1963. By 1968, he’d twice won the English league title, while his 32 goals in 53 games in ‘67/68 coincided with them winning the European Cup.
Regarded as one of the greatest dribblers in the history of the sport, his playing style combined pace, skill, balance, feints, two-footedness, goalscoring and the ability to beat defenders. Best unexpectedly quit United in 1974 at age 27, but returned to football for a number of clubs around the world in short spells, until retiring in 1984, age 37. In international football, he was capped 37 times and scored nine goals between 1964 and 1977, although a combination of the team’s performance and his lack of fitness in 1982 meant that he never played in the finals of a European Championship or World Cup.
Checkout : Greatest Manchester United Players Ever
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5. Jimmy Greaves
Tottenham Hotspur’s highest ever goalscorer, Jimmy Greaves is also the highest goalscorer in the history of English top-flight football with 357 goals. The best British finisher bar none. Greaves scored 266 goals in 379 matches for Spurs.
His instinctive ability to find the bottom corner of the net from all angles marked him as one of the most natural finishers to have graced the game. Those who saw Greaves glide through defences and sidefoot the ball home were a lucky generation indeed.
Greaves began his professional career at Chelsea in 1957, and played in the following year’s FA Youth Cup final. He scored 124 First Division goals in just four seasons before being sold on to Italian club A.C. Milan for £80,000 in April 1961. His stay in Italy was not a happy one and he returned to England with Tottenham Hotspur.
Signed by Bill Nicholson for £99,999 from AC Milan to avoid him becoming the first £100,000 player in 1961, Greaves’ arrival proved to be the final piece of the puzzle for what would go on to become the greatest Tottenham side ever.
Checkout : Greatest Spurs Players Ever
4. Dixie Dean
Dean began his football career with hometown club Tranmere Rovers before moving on to Everton, the club he had supported as a child and where he played the majority of his career.
It was while at Goodison Park that Dean made his name in the game as one of the most prolific goal scorers that fans still talk about today. His exploits during the 1927/28 season, which saw him score a record 60 league goals, is one of the most incredible achievements for any striker and one which is unlikely ever to be bettered in the modern game.
Across his career, Dean scored 473 goals in 502 appearances for club and country. He was twice leading scorer in the First Division, and on both occasions Everton were crowned champions. In internationals his record was again better than a goal a game, with 18 goals in 16 appearances.
Dixie was quite simply the greatest ever Evertonian, a phenomenon in the truest sense of the word, whose exploits were little short of super-human.
Checkout : Greatest Everton Players of All Time
3. Stanley Matthews
Often regarded as one of the greatest players of the British game, he is the only player to have been knighted while still playing football, as well as being the first winner of both the European Footballer of the Year and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year awards. Matthews’ nicknames included “The Wizard of the Dribble” and “The Magician”.
His passing was extraordinarily accurate, and he was not so much a scorer as a creator of goals for others. His sportsmanship was exemplary and he was never booked in his career. He was often referred to as “the first gentleman of soccer”. It was said Matthews’ presence in a team could add 10,000 to away gates.
In 1929, at the age of 14, he signed for Stoke at £1 per week on the office staff. As an amateur he played 22 games for the reserves aged just 16, with other players giving him two shillings from their bonus when they won. He finally signed professionally for Stoke at 17, being paid the top available wage of £5 per week.
A year later he won a Division 2 medal as Stoke were promoted to Division 1. In 1934 he won his first cap for England, scoring in a 4- 0 win against Wales. Matthews was 19 at the time, and his international career would continue for another 23 years.
When he retired in 1965, aged 50, he had made nearly 700 League appearances for Stoke City and Blackpool.
2. Bobby Charlton
Charlton came up through the ranks at Manchester United, survived Munich disaster, and was part of the team 10 years later who became the first English club to win the European Cup, scoring twice in the final. He also won the Ballon d’Or and is the second person in the history of United to have a stand at Old Trafford named after him. He was also an essential member of the English team that won the World Cup in 1966.
He is United’s second all-time leading goal scorer with 249 goals, being surpassed by Wayne Rooney, and held the distinction of being England’s all-time top goal scorer with 49 goals, from May 1968 to September 2015, when again Wayne Rooney surpassed his record.
The fact that Charlton remained right at the top of this elite list for so long (41 years) is testament to the scale of his monumental tally, especially for a player who played much of his career in midfield. He is simply incredible, scoring in every one of his 17 seasons in the first team.
1. Bobby Moore
The icon of English football, who continues to stand guard outside Wembley Stadium 24 years after his untimely passing. West Ham legend Moore was a fairytale hero of the sport, immortalised by lifting the World Cup in 1966, and who was also renowned as a gentleman of the game.
He captained West Ham United for more than ten years and is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders of all time, and was cited by Pelé as the greatest defender that he had ever played against. Moore was made an inaugural inductee of the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002 in recognition of his impact on the English game as a player. The same year he was named in the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Franz Beckenbauer ranks him the ‘best defender in the history of the game’. Jock Stein joked: ‘There should be a law against him. He knows what’s happening 20 minutes before everyone else.’
And what of those who played alongside him? Sir Bobby Charlton says: ‘‘it was beautiful to look at him when he played. Nobody tackled him. He just oozed class.’
Checkout: West Ham United Greatest Players Ever