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 –
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.”