Longevity is often a key factor when it comes to listing the best Premier League players of all time – but what about those who came, saw, conquered and then p*ssed off in the space of two seasons?
There have been great players, Gerard Pique, for example, who were in the Premier League before they were great. And there have been great players who were in the Premier League when they weren’t really great anymore. Players like Maicon.
And then there have been players who were great both before and after playing in the Premier League but for whatever reason just didn’t do it in England. Radamel Falcao immediately springs to mind.
With all three of those types of players, we’ll always wonder ‘what if’ and rue the fact we never saw them at their best.
But there is a fourth kind of player. The kind who did do the business in the Premier League but still left us feeling shortchanged because we just didn’t see them for long enough.
Here are 13 examples of that kind of player. All brilliant on these shores, all gone too soon. And it’s a non-definitive list so send your suggestions to us on Twitter @planetfutebol.
When Klinsmann moved to Spurs in the summer of 1994, the English press were not happy. And when Klinsmann left Spurs for Bayern Munich in the summer of 1995, the English press were not happy
The German was pretty much reviled on these shores thanks to his theatrical dive that got Argentina’s Pedro Monzon sent off in the final of Italia 90 (as well as him playing in the semi-final win over England, of course) and The Guardian’s Andrew Anthony wrote an article titled ‘Why I Hate Jurgen Klinsmann’ before the 1994-95 season began.
But Klinsmann quickly won everyone over with his personality, enquiring in his first press conference as a Spurs player whether there was a diving school in London which led to Anthony publishing a follow-up article titled ‘Why I Love Jurgen Klinsmann’.
He maintained the humour on the pitch, celebrating his late winner over Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day with a swan dive, and celebrating is something he did an awful lot that season, scoring 30 times in all competitions and becoming the first player to win the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year in his first season in England.
He finished 1995 as the Ballon d’Or runner-up but had left London for Bayern then, much to everyone’s dismay. Thankfully, not least for Spurs, he returned on loan in the second half of the 1997-98 season and scored another nine goals from just 15 Premier League games to save them from relegation before hanging up his boots. Legend.
Zlatan claims he “conquered England in three months”, and while that is perhaps a little hyperbolic considering at Manchester United finished sixth in his only full season at the club, it was still the best of the post-Fergie era as the League Cup and Europa League were secured.
Ibrahimovic for his part scored a mightily impressive 28 goals, including the winner in the League Cup final, before injury struck and ended his campaign early. Still, he’d done more enough to silence those – and there were plenty – who thought he’d struggle in the Premier League in his mid-thirties.
He returned to play for United in the Champions League the following season before ending his contract early to conquer a new league over the pond with LA Galaxy.
If Spurs signing Klinsmann in 1994 raised some eyebrows, then Middlesbrough signing Ravanelli two years later had people checking their sugar hadn’t been laced with LSD.
The White Feather had scored in the Champions League final for Juventus a couple of months earlier and had played at Euro 96 for Italy over the summer, yet somehow he was convinced at the age of 27, his peak, to sign for Middlesbrough, who had only been promoted to the Premier League a year earlier.
He joined Juninho and Emerson at the Riverside and promptly scored a hat-trick on his debut against Liverpool to spark suggestions Boro could mix it with the big boys, but it never quite worked out, the Teessiders reaching two finals but getting relegated in an entertaining, memorable but ultimately successful season.
Still, Ravanelli finished it with 31 goals before leaving for Marseille and then returning to England in 2001 to score another 11 goals, this time for Derby, on his way to another relegation from the Premier League.
It was described by The Guardian as a ‘surprising coup’ when Leicester City signed Cambiasso after his contract at Inter expired in 2014.
And if anyone assumed they’d only pulled it off because the then-34-year-old’s legs had gone, they were soon proven wrong.
Cambiasso had started 32 games in his last season in Italy and went on to make 33 appearances in his one year in England, ending it as Leicester’s Player of the Season.
‘You have stolen the hearts of City fans like no other player I can remember,’ James Sharpe wrote in the Leicester Mercury at the end of that season. ‘Never have the supporters, en masse, been so united behind one man.’
Cambiasso had played such a crucial role in Leicester’s miraculous late survival bid that plenty would have feared the worst when the Argentine announced he would leave the King Power after just one season.
“I need you, everybody loves you in Leicester, please come back,” Claudio Ranieri had said to him.
Thankfully for the Foxes, they managed just fine without him that next season…
Like Cambiasso, Payet made such an impression in his first season in England that he won his club’s Player of the Season award.
Unlike Cambiasso, he didn’t exactly leave with the club’s best wishes.
He actually stayed for half a season longer but forced a move to Marseille less than a year after signing a new contract to seemingly commit his future to the Hammers.
Still, sh*thousery aside, he was bloody good in that first season especially, and there was a period when it genuinely felt like whenever he stepped up for a free-kick he was going to score.
Oddly, his best goal arguably came when he was close to leaving, a solo effort against Middlesbrough where it was hard to tell if he refused to pass because he trusted himself too much or didn’t trust his team-mates enough.
Rafael van der Vaart
This one pushes the parameters to the extreme – Van der Vaart joined Tottenham on August 31, 2010 and left on August 31, 2012 – but it shouldn’t be forgotten what an impact he made on Spurs at a time when they were taking their early steps towards becoming the Premier League big boys they are today.
Indeed, the 2010-11 season was their first in the Champions League, and Van der Vaart played a crucial role in helping them to the quarter-finals as part of a surprisingly fruitful partnership with Peter Crouch.
In the Premier League, meanwhile, again with help from Crouch, he top scored with an impressive 13 goals, the highest single league tally he’d managed since his early years at Ajax.
Three of them came against Arsenal, which certainly helped his status, as did a humiliating double nutmeg on Jack Wilshere in the space of a few seconds in the second of the north London derbies that season. Clearly, here was a man who understood Spurs.
He’s since described his two seasons at White Hart as the “best phase” of his career. “People come to see a back-heel, nice goals, teams that prefer to win 4-3 instead of 1-0. That’s what I liked about Spurs.” He just got it.
Larsson only played 13 times for Manchester United, scoring three times, but the way Sir Alex Ferguson spoke about the striker as he returned to Helsinborgs says everything you need to know about the impact he made.
“They (the players) would say his name in awed tones,” Fergie said. “Cult status can vanish in two minutes if a player isn’t doing his job, yet Henrik retained that aura in his time with us.”
The players and staff even stood and applauded the Celtic legend after his final appearance on loan at Old Trafford. His record on paper might not look like anything to shout about, but the flourishes he did provide, combined with his personality off the pitch, won him hearts.
So much so, in fact, that when United won the Premier League at the end of that season, they appealed to get Larsson a winner’s medal on special dispensation. That’s some impact for a 35-year-old to make in three months.
Asamoah Gyan and Amr Zaki were also considerations as One-Season wonders for mid-table clubs, but those pair were shitbags whereas Michu seemed like a thoroughly nice bloke who just lost his touch.
And what a touch it was: 43 games, 22 goals, five assists. He’d scored 15 in La Liga for Rayo Vallecano the season before, but costing Swansea just £2million in July 2012, nobody would have predicted what was to come.
But Michu scored twice and set up another on his debut, and just kept going. On Christmas Day he was the Premier League’s top scorer with 13.
The goals did not flow quite so easily in the second half of the season, but he still helped Michael Laudrup’s side finish ninth and win the League Cup, scoring one and setting up another in the final. He was, unsurprisingly, named Swansea’s Player of the Year.
A little like when Middlesbrough signed Ravanelli, it just didn’t seem right when Lombardo swapped Juve to sign for Crystal Palace, newly promoted from Division One.
He’d played 20 games on his way to the Serie A title the previous season, was hardly past it at 31, and joined in the same summer as luminaries such as Kevin Miller, Hermann Hreidarsson, Paul Warhurst and Neil Emblen. Somehow, the latter of those cost more than Lombardo.
Unsurprisingly, Lombardo was operating on a rather different level to his new team-mates.
“The sight of seeing Lombardo dance past three defenders and play the ball into the space Bruce Dyer should have been in but was too mesmerised by his own team-mates’ skills to realise will never leave me,” Palace fan Jim Daly told us.
Hilariously, Lombardo was so much better than everyone around him that by March he had been made player-manager with Palace bottom of the league.
That’s exactly where they stayed, too, but Lombardo, despite everything going on around him, somehow managed to provide Palace fans with good memories of the season. That’s some going.
We’re still not sure quite how it happened, but for a while in the 2000s Sam Allardyce was somehow able to convince genuine legends of the game to move to Bolton to play with Kevin Davies, Kevin Nolan and co.
And we’re still not sure quite how it happened, but it worked. For a while, Bolton’s bizarre combination of British cloggers and ageing (but ludicrously talented) stars of the international game combined for one of the most exciting teams around.
Hierro was 36 when he decided to take up the challenge of the Premier League after a year in the Middle East, and though age restricted the number of his performances, they certainly did not hinder the quality of them. Allardyce went as far as calling the Real Madrid legend “the best passer in the club’s history”.
Hierro for his part described his year in Greater Manchester as “something I will remember for the rest of my life”.
We’re still not quite sure how it happened, but we’re bloody glad it did.
For Herro at Bolton, see Dugarry at Birmingham.
Blues were halfway through their first season back in the Premier League and looking over their shoulders when they signed Dugarry on loan from Bordeaux in 2003.
He was not at the peak of his powers, admittedly, having failed to score in 16 appearances in the first half of the season, but he won the World Cup and European Championship, FFS. He’d make more of an impact than the player signed the day before, Ferdinand Coly, surely?
Well, yes. In fact Sean Cole on these pages described his performance in a 3-2 win over Southampton as ‘as one of the greatest individual performances in the club’s history.’
It didn’t last, and he left with just 30 appearances and six goals to his name in Blue, but like so many of the best players, that was all it took.
Like Van der Vaart further up this list, Elano played in the Premier League during a weird period for his club, Manchester City, playing in that up-and-down Sven-Goran Eriksson season and then the one in which Sheikh Mansour rolled into town.
When players like Robinho started signing, Elano suddenly didn’t seem so glamorous.
But he was f*cking class. Underheralded perhaps compared to Geovanni, who joined City that same summer in 2008 and went on to impress for Hull, Elano was so good in his first season at Eastlands that Eriksson likened him, loosely, to Ronaldinho.
Certainly, he was a joy to watch. A prototype David Silva, almost.
“He is very good at finding space, he can bring in players, he can shoot,” Eriksson said. “He sees things very quickly – sometimes I wonder if he has got eyes in his back.”
He didn’t, as far as we know, but Sven could be forgiven for wondering.
We were torn between Litmanen and Didier Deschamps for this final slot, but there was just always something alluring about Litmanen.
He first moved to England in January 2001, joining Liverpool from Barcelona having gone half a season without playing a game, and that lack of match fitness probably held him back at Anfield, but now and again he’d do something to remind us all why we fell in love with him at Ajax, not least when he scored wonderful goals against Spurs and Bayer Leverkusen.
He was allowed to return to Ajax after 18 months and later failed to make a single appearance in half a season at Fulham following heart concerns, but we’ll still always be grateful we got to see him play, however fleeting.