Cantona, Balotelli, Solskjaer: The top 10 all-time Premier League cult heroes

Eric Cantona Manchester United

The Premier League has thrown up its fair share of cult heroes down the years. 

They’re rather hard to define, but every set of supporters has one: a player whose legacy prevails for reasons beyond their fundamental footballing ability, a character that often stimulates debate and divides opinion.

They’re a vital fabric of the game that remind us that football is as much about the personalities involved as it is about chasing success.

Given how much football fans like to reminisce about players from bygone eras, it’s rather fitting that BBC Sport’s latest instalment of the Match of the Day Top 10 podcast is all about cult heroes.

Regular host Gary Lineker was joined by guests Micah Richards and Alan Shearer to count down the ten top cult heroes in Premier League history, while also discussing the complex, intricate combination of factors that earn a player such an esteemed title. 

From the volatile magic of Mario Balotelli to the flamboyant genius of Jay-Jay Okocha, let’s see who made the cut in ascending order: 

10. Faustino Asprilla (Shearer: 10th, Richards: 10th)

Described as a ‘nice lunatic’ by Shearer, Faustino Asprilla commanded plenty of media attention at Italian side Parma before joining Newcastle United. 

It has been claimed that he made his Magpies debut after travelling from Italy the same morning and drinking a glass of wine on the team bus on the assumption that he wouldn’t feature. 

However, he was mistaken and eventually provided a glorious assist for the winning goal against North East rivals Middlesbrough having come on as a substitute.

9. Chris Waddle (Shearer 8th, Richards 9th)

Cited by Lineker as one of the main reasons he signed for Spurs from Barcelona, Chris Waddle enjoyed a glowing career with the Lilywhites, Newcastle, Marseille and Sheffield Wednesday.

8. David Ginola (Shearer 9th, Richards 6th)

A mercurial attacking player with the ability to enchant and disappoint in equal measure, David Ginola’s chiselled features and flowing locks made the Frenchman an iconic figure in English football during spells with Spurs, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Everton. 

7. Jay-Jay Okocha (Shearer 6th, Richards 7th)

Jay-Jay Okocha Bolton Wanderers

Jay-Jay Okocha was a rose amongst thorns in an over-achieving Bolton Wanderers side during the early noughties. 

The Nigerian playmaker had an insatiable level of natural ability that drew him admirers from rivals fans, and he will be regarded as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – players in Bolton’s history.  

6. Matt Le Tissier (Shearer 2nd, Richards 8th)

Matt Le Tissier was a one-club man, spending the entirety of his career with Southampton.

The attacking midfielder is part of the Premier League 100 club with 102 strikes in his esteemed career. 

These fans don’t want Chelsea to sign Raphael Varane this summer. Find out why on The Football Terrace…

5. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Shearer 4th, Richards 5th)

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s place on this list can be almost entirely explained by his last-gasp winning goal against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, which clinched United an unprecedented treble. 

4. Paulo Di Canio (Shearer 5th, Richards 4th)

Di Canio

This is where we get into the real mavericks. 

Paulo Di Canio scored one of the most iconic goals in Premier League history with an immaculately timed scissor kick for West Ham against Wimbledon, but he will be remembered for flooring a referee in 1998 rather than his slice of intuitive genius. 

3. Mario Balotelli (Shearer 7th, Richards 1st)

Why always me? 

The most undisputable and utterly bewildering maverick the game has ever seen. 

There are thousands of stories about Balotelli. Some say he pays off library debts out of the goodness of his heart, others say he throws darts at his teammates. 

We’ll never truly know how much is true, but what we do know is that he’s capable of just about anything both on and off the pitch. 

2. Paul Gascoigne (Shearer 3rd, Richards 3rd) 

A player who captured the hearts of a nation with his exuberant style and infectiously likeable personality. 

Paul Gascoigne was a notorious prankster behind the scenes and that mischief translated on the field, making him one of the most popular English players in history. 

His performances at Euro ’96 were a joy to behold and almost carried the Three Lions to glory.

1. Eric Cantona (Shearer 1st, Richards 2nd) 

Eric Cantona Manchester United

You’d be hard pressed to find too many players who have kung-fu kicked a supporter in the crowd, but Eric Cantona managed to tick that box during his scintillating career.

An ice-cold talent with a suave, effortlessly sophisticated persona, Cantona spearheaded Manchester United into a new era of unparalleled success under Sir Alex Ferguson. 

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