Top five: Premier League cult heroes
Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry & Gianfranco Zola were all loved by their club's supporters
Every team has their cult heroes: players whose names are sung loud and proud every Saturday afternoon at grounds across the country, even if they hung up their boots a long time ago.
Here are the Premier League's top five cult heroes:
5. Paolo Di Canio
Paolo Di Canio spent seven successful seasons in the Premier League with Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton. The Sunderland boss was well journeyed in his day, and came with bitter controversy both on and off the pitch.
In 1998, he received an eleven-match ban for pushing a referee and attracted negative publicity after expressing his self-proclaimed allegiance to fascism.
That never effected Di Canio’s performances, though, and he became a legendary figure at West Ham, scoring crucial goals, wonderful too, and providing plenty of assists for his team-mates.
He was an intriguing playmaker who could do anything with the ball - and inspired his teammates to greater heights during his time in England. He was also known for his fair play.
In December, 2000, in a match against Everton, Di Canio shunned a goalscoring opportunity and caught the ball from a cross instead as the Everton goalkeeper was lying injured on the ground. FIFA described the act as “a special act of good sportsmanship”, enhancing his fanatical reputation.
The Italian scored 67 goals in 190 league appearances for three struggling clubs - and he was one of the most famed players of the Premier League era.
4. Gianfranco Zola
Another Italian who sparked English football with his wizardry, Gianfranco Zola was a cult hero in many respects with his time at Chelsea. He spent seven successful seasons with club, playing as a diminutive forward with the skill and presence of mind to do what he felt like with the ball.
He had a gift and the blessing of a football god, and spent some time in his career playing alongside Maradona in Italy.
He brought some of that Maradona style to England, where a series of stunning displays were on show, including a fantastic back-heel against Norwich City in 2002. He had all the skills to be the best in the world, and was voted as Chelsea’s greatest player of all time in 2003.
Zola was voted Football Writers’ Player of the Year in 1996/97 after joining Chelsea in November. Sir Alex Ferguson described him as “a little so-and-so” with his magical undoing of defences.
He carries an iconic status at Chelsea, and in the entire Premier League.
3. Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry joined Arsenal after a less than impressive spell at Juventus.
Starting out as a winger, Henry was transformed into a goalscoring machine, and not just simple goals; goals of 40-yard runs and superb volleys from outside the area.
Henry has an incredible array of individual awards, including three FWA Player of the Year and four Premier League Golden Boot awards. He was majestic as a Gunner, helping them to two league titles, and formed the backbone of Wenger’s brilliant squads over his eight seasons at the team.
The most recognised Arsenal player in the modern era, Henry was brought back by popular demand in January 2012 for a short loan-spell, where he scored two winning goals for the Gunners and his presence was a fantastic inspiration.
Arsenal haven't won a trophy since his departure, missing out on his 175 goals in 258 league appearances as a Gunner in addition of his 78 assists.
Henry could break the offside trap or run through defences to get himself on a one-on-one situation with goalkeepers, and his composure would do the rest. His control of long-range passes is excellent, and his pace during his prime years was exceptional and daunting for any Premier League defender.
A classy striker, and Arsenal all-time top scorer, Henry is more than a legend at Arsenal.
2. Alan Shearer
The all-time leading scorer in Premier League history with 260 goals in 441 appearances, Shearer has an iconic status at Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United. A true leader and a legendary goalscorer, Shearer was a classical English centre-forward, owing to his strength, physical stature, heading ability and strong shot.
He had an incredible goalscoring record from the penalty spot and scored 45 times from the spot during his time at Newcastle. He is Newcastle’s all-time leading scorer and won the Premier League Golden Boot three times, all in succession.
Shearer has a long-list of accolades, making him of the most individually successful Premier League players to date, in addition to his Player of the Decade of the first ten seasons of the Premier League.
1. Eric Cantona
Cantona was the driving force behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s early success at United, playing a key role in helping the club become a world force.
In that honour, he has gained an iconic status with the club, despite his overall controversial displays with the club. The former United captain spurred worldwide controversy when he was sent off against Crystal Palace for a kick on a player. As he was walking towards the tunnel, Cantona launched a 'kung-fu' style kick into the crowd, directed at a Crystal Palace fan.
At a press conference, Cantona gave his most famous quotation. He said, in a slow and deliberate manner: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much."
He then got up from his seat and left, leaving many of the assembled crowd bemused.
Cantona was arrested and convicted for assault, resulting in a two-week prison sentence. This was overturned in the appeal court and instead he was sentenced to 120 hours of community service.
Despite a lengthy ban, that wasn’t enough to break one of the greatest players to have ever graced the football pitch. Cantona scored and set-up crucial goals, at times when United were struggling, he would be their saviour and silver lining.
Cantona brought confidence to the entire team, a symbol of an icon. Cantona scored 64 goals in 143 appearances in the league for United, having joined them from Leeds in 1992. It is the best transfer Sir Alex Ferguson has ever done, and Cantona will long-live with a cult status in England’s most successful era despite his sad and early retirement.
"King Eric" will affectionately be hailed as the majesty of Manchester United football.
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