2009 has been a terrible year for Newcastle United; the ignominy of relegation was the end result but even before this, the antics of Mike Ashley and his team created a soap opera that was traumatic even by the high standards set at this tumultuous club.
Over the last fifteen years there have been far happier times, with the club experiencing Champions League football in the 2002-2003 season and consecutive top four finishes in the league on two occasions. Compiling a list of the 10 greatest players over the last 15 years is a difficult exercise given the subjective nature of the game; relying on statistics alone would be unfair as this methodology would favour forwards over players in other positions (though a list of Toon legends would always have been light on defenders). Nevertheless, here is a list of the ten greatest Newcastle players of the last 15 years, taking into account: appearances, impact and talent.
10. Philippe Albert 1994-99, 96 league appearances, 8 goals – Attained cult hero status with his role in ‘The Entertainers’ as a centre back who appeared more comfortable with the ball at his feet in the opposition half. Albert deserves his place on this list for the exquisite, chipped goal against Manchester United alone.
9. Keiron Dyer 1999-2007, 190 league appearances, 23 goals – Probably the most contentious of my choices given his impressive rap sheet which includes the scuffle with Lee Bowyer that brought such shame upon the club. But strip away the controversy, and then strip away the rest of the controversy, and what you’re left with is an extremely talented footballer whose career has been destroyed by a succession of serious injuries. A versatile player whose searing pace allowed him to penetrate defence with at times alarming ease. He amassed 33 caps for England and at the peak of his powers was a better player than the current crop of English right wingers (Lennon, Walcott, Wright-Phillips et al).
8. Gary Speed 1998-2004, 213 league appearances, 29 goals – The most reliable of central midfielders, Speed remains one of the most professional men in the sport. He displayed calmness on the ball and was a constant aerial threat arriving late in the box. An unremarkable player in many ways, but Gary Speed never had a bad game and was someone that you could always expect a 7 out of 10 performance form.
7. David Ginola 1995-97, 76 total appearances, 7 goals – An extravagant player with a personality to match, David Ginola set St James’ Park alight for all too brief a spell. He had the ability rip teams apart and did it with a Gallic swagger that both enthralled and infuriated spectators. The French international wasn’t fond of tracking back and could be something of a luxury player, but what a luxury he was. The Toon Army won’t see another like him again (though Laurent Robert gave it his best shot).
6. Les Ferdinand 1995-97, 83 total appearances, 50 goals – Affectionately known as Sir Les; Ferdinand proved himself as one of the best strikers in the league during his time at Newcastle. His brief partnership with Shearer was a hugely successful one, defying conventional wisdom as the two powerful, target men managed to dovetail beautifully. Ferdinand remains a popular figure amongst fans and the role he played in the ill-fated title push of 1996 will never be forgotten.
5. Andrew Cole 1993-95, 70 league appearances, 55 goals – The spearhead of the team that took the Premier League by storm soon after promotion was achieved. His goalscoring record is phenomenal and though he achieved greater glories in the red of Manchester United and only spent two years with the Magpies, Cole will be remembered fondly be Newcastle fans as he played a key role in establishing the club as top Premier League side in the mid-nineties.
4. Robert Lee 1992-2002, 303 league appearances, 44 goals – The heartbeat of the side that was dubbed ‘The Entertainers’. Lee was a box-to-box player who could do it all. He tracked back responsibly, burst forward incisively, and delivered his fair share of goals from midfield. Labelled the best midfielder in the country by Keegan, Rob Lee was an underrated colossus in midfield.
3. Shay Given 1997-2009, 462 total appearances, 0 goals – There are few positives to be gleaned from possessing a poor defence, but Newcastle’s defensive failings over the last decade have allowed Shay Given to showcase his astounding reflexes and shot-stopping ability. At times, he performed miracles and it would be no exaggeration to say that relegation could have occurred at an earlier juncture had it not been for Given’s ability. Marco Tardelli believes him to be the second best goalkeeper in the world, but there is case to be made that this assessment is selling Shay short by one.
2. Peter Beardsley 1983-87, 93-97, 325 total appearances, 119 goals – Qualifies for this list by virtue of his second spell at the club. During this second spell he chalked up 157 appearances and scored 56 goals and it is this period that Beardsley himself considers his peak. He captained the side that came agonisingly close to being crowned league champions; fleet of foot and possessing wonderful vision, some of his play during that season can only be described as genius.
1. Alan Shearer 1996-2006, 404 total appearances, 206 goals – The most predictable of choices for the top spot but with good reason. Shearer is the club’s record goalscorer and will be remembered as one of the greatest players of the modern era. 30 goals for England demonstrated his quality on the international stage and he was the recipient of the PFA Player of the Year Award on two separate occasions. The complete striker, as well as goals and penalties he provided high quality crosses for a number of strike partners, as well as being the first line of defence at set pieces. A lack of medals in his time at the club has done nothing to diminish his legacy and he will be viewed as something of a deity in the North East forever.
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