The archetypal modern striker has to have it all; link the play, press defenders and support his team mates. There are few elite scorers who lack these elements. The all round striker is the go to for most of the top teams. There are some exceptions to the rule but their weaknesses have either been hidden or coached to the point of becoming an expert.
In the embryonic stage of the Premier League, this was certainly not the case. In the 4-4-2 systems used by most managers, the two strikers main task was to score goals. Normally, these strikers would complement each other in a little and large partnership or one creative and the other a poacher. These strikers would generate all of the headlines and be the focal point of the team.
For context, the creation of the Premier League did not fundamentally change the style of football and it did not elevate the league to the status of the world’s top league in Serie A. As time passed and more money flooded into the league, international imports were brought to the league and truly did change the way English football was played.
In those early days of this new dawn, there were a core group of strikers, all English, apart from one incredibly influential Frenchman, who would dominate the goal scoring charts. They had some common traits, but all excelled in their position for different reasons.
These men would define the position in the first years of the Premier League and would certainly hold their own in the league today. Forget poachers, advanced forwards, trequartistas and false nines and say hello to the age old role of the goal scorer.
The summer of 1992 was one of hope for the football world. The naysayers believed that the Premier League would either be an extension of the First Division or a move to create a superpower and marginalise the lower leagues. Not sure which one of those was right.
The league needed a transfer that would set a marker for the ambition of the newly branded competition. Not everyone was sure spending £3.6m on a striker unproven at the highest level. That’s exactly what Blackburn, a newly promoted team no less, decided to do when they signed Alan Shearer from Southampton.
In reality, Shearer was a highly rated player and was tipped to feature as a fixture in the England side for many times to come. Despite his goal scoring record for Southampton his emergence as the poster boy for goal scorers in the early Premier League era was unsurpassed.
At the time of his transfer, Shearer had managed only 10 league goals in his career. Reporting in The Independent journalist Henry Winter noted that Shearer was ‘clearly the leading English striker of his generation’ and the ‘natural successor to Gary Lineker.’ High praise indeed for a 21 year old with his goal scoring record. He would start the season living up to all of this praise, but it was another Englishman who would start the season in great goal scoring form.
Teddy Sheringham had impressed in his first season at Nottingham Forest under the declining talents of legendary manager Brian Clough. His goal scoring form had carried over from his time moving up and down the division with Millwall. In comparison to Shearer, Sheringham had scored almost 50 goals for his first club by his early 20s.
Leading the line for Forest in the first ever televised game against Liverpool in August 1992, Sheringham netted the first ever goal in this new dawn. A week later he was gone. Clough had decided his number 9 was not needed any more and recouped the £2m he had spent by selling him to Tottenham.
Sheringham was not known as being the most mobile of strikers, and he certainly wasn’t in his younger days, but he was an incredibly effective goal scorer and would go on to prove that through the season.
Another big money signing on the move was Dean Saunders, who ended a disastrous spell at Liverpool to rediscover his form at Aston Villa. Ron Atkinson’s side would go on to mount a series title challenge with Saunders and his striker partner Dalian Atkinson at the fore.
As the season got under way, the early pace setters were not the usual big clubs such as reigning champions Leeds, Liverpool, Arsenal or Fergie’s developing Manchester United side.
With ten games gone, sitting clear at the top were Norwich City. Two points ahead of Blackburn, Mike Walker’s side had won many admirers with their superb passing football. Their style was a far cry from the often turgid football on display in the rest of the league. It really was an extension of the First Division at this point and not one of the most dominant leagues in the world.
One man who was lighting up the division was Shearer. By the tenth game of the season he had already found the net 10 times. Manager Kenny Dalglish spent owner Jack Walker’s millions wisely and invested in building a team around his star striker. Either side of Shearer were Stuart Ripley and Jason Wilcox who supplied endless crosses into the box. This played incredibly well to Shearer’s strengths as a goal scorer. Adept in the air and on the ground, the copious amounts of chances created by the wingers allowed the Geordie to thrive.
Teddy Sheringham found himself languishing much further down the table with Tottenham and by mid November had added four goals to his tally. In contrast, Shearer was up to 12 goals in his first 16 games. Sheringham would find better form as the season went on and unfortunately Shearer’s season would be brought to an abrupt end.
Shearer and Sheringham were the two major striking transfers in the summer months, but there would be another that would change the outcome of the season.
The stories of Eric Cantona’s arrival have been told and retold. His arrival in Leeds coincided with the Yorkshire side winning the last ever First Division league title. Making only a small goal scoring contribution to their title run, his work as a more creative forward alongside Lee Chapman was what caught the eye. The deep lying forward role was one that he would develop further as he transferred to Leeds’ bitter rivals.
After Alex Ferguson’s fabled phone call to Howard Wilkinson, Cantona was on his way to Manchester United for £1.2m. A third of the cost that Blackburn had shelled out on Shearer. It proved to be one of the best transfers of the whole Premier League era and probably English football, such was its impact.
Cantona not only kick started one of the most dominant decades in league football for United, but he came to redefine the footballer. His influence on every aspect of the game was immense. From turning up his collar, to his incomprehensible interviews and dedication to training, Cantona’s legacy lived on well after he retired. This iteration of Cantona was not that player, he was raw, talented and ready to impress.
A main feature of Cantona’s play was his excellent heading ability. Not seen as much during his later years, he scored a number of headed goals for United that season. As Ferguson set up with speedy wingers, there were plenty of crosses into the box. Mark Hughes was often the main beneficiary, but Cantona got himself on the end of a fair few as well. His ability to hang in the air and power the ball into the net became crucial for United in their quest for the title.
In sharp contrast to the Gallic flair of Cantona was Ian Wright. The type of player that journalists and fans call ‘a proper goalscorer.’ Wright knew where the back of the net was and was prolific for Crystal Palace before his move to Arsenal. His speed and finishing ability set him apart from other strikers and his goal scoring record proves it.
Having reached the big time later than most, Wright was not about to pass up his opportunity to make a mark on defenders around the country. Persistent running and intelligent movement enabled Wright to flourish as part of a well drilled and organised Arsenal unit. A team that had been champions just two years earlier, did not look like the same team as English football entered it’s new dawn.
Across London, another man firmly established himself as one of the top strikers in the Premier League was Les Ferdinand. His role in Gerry Francis’ Queens Park Rangers side was to get into the box and score goals. He was the typical, all action striker that had become synonymous with football in the 1980s.
Before the Premier League, Ferdinand had been nowhere near as prolific. His record was ok, but it was a loan spell with Besiktas which really made the management at QPR take note. On his return from Turkey, Ferdinand became first choice in the side and as the Premier League season came around he was ready to take his place amongst the leading lights.
The key strengths of the striker were his strength, heading ability and excellent positioning in the box. As with all the strikers who excelled during this period, his goals were not down to luck or chance, but hard work on the pitch and on the training ground. Ferdinand knew that he had the opportunity to become a household name with a QPR side that were challenging for a top 6 place after a mid table finish the season before.
One team struggling at the wrong end of the table were Southampton. The difference for Ian Branfoot’s team was they had a transcendent talent in the form of Matthew Le Tissier. A true maverick footballer who could change the game in an instant, Le Tissier would thrive in the early Premier League era. Starting with his breakout season in 1989/90 up to the end of 1995, Le Tissier scored 135 goals. An incredible return for someone who was not the typical number nine.
Like Cantona, Le Tissier was a mercurial talent. Not as dedicated on the training pitch in traditional terms, Le Tissier did not waste a moment cultivating the skill and technique that would separate him from his peers. His dedication to his craft was clear to see when he walked out onto the pitch. No player could do the things he could just by chance.
After the departure of Shearer in the summer of 1992, Le Tissier was handed the keys to the attack. Although the team was not built around him yet, that would come later, he was still the focal point for the Saints attack.
During this period Le Tissier’s goals were typified with exemplary close control, often lofting the ball over a hapless defender’s head and volleying the ball into the back of the net. Over the following two seasons he would become well known for his Match of the Day goal of the month contenders.
One striker who gets an honourable mention, but was certainly not a main protagonist was Micky Quinn. Certainly a striker that would look out of place in the modern game, Quinn’s move to Coventry from Newcastle had a huge impact on the Premier League at the time and a massive knock on effect for the next decade.
Having fallen out of favour at Newcastle, Quinn was sold to Coventry in November 1992. His departure from Newcastle meant that a more regular goal scorer was needed to help them with their promotion push under Kevin Keegan.
Quinn, meanwhile, made the leap to the top division in the hope that he would score the goals to keep them away from relegation trouble. Incredibly, he succeeded in a way that no one could have ever predicted with ten goals in his first six games. His final tally of 17 Premier League goals came in just 26 games. An incredible return on an investment of just £250,000.
The gap in the Newcastle line up meant that Newcastle needed a new striker and so bought Andy Cole from Bristol City. The following season Cole tore up the league and even outscored Alan Shearer, before earning his big move to Manchester United. Cole became one of the premier strikers in the league despite missing out on the first ever season.
If Quinn had not made his move to Coventry then who knows if Keegan would have achieved what he did with Newcastle or if United had gone on to dominate the 90s. These sliding doors moments really can have a profound impact on the league and football in general.
The first Premier League title race was a good one. Unlikely challengers Norwich City found themselves top for a large portion of the season thanks to their excellent passing football. Aston Villa were challengers with Dalian Atkinson and Dean Saunders partnership really bearing fruit. Manchester United hung around the top portion of the table for most of the season, but Cantona really was the catalyst for their run to the title.
One player who did not finish the season was Alan Shearer. The domestic record signing was lighting up the goal scoring charts but it would soon come to an abrupt end.
Boxing Day brought title challengers Blackburn and league top scorer Shearer to reigning champions Leeds. In a 3-1 win at Ewood Park and two goals from Shearer, disaster struck as the Geordie striker ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and would miss the rest of the season. At that point he had scored 16 goals in his first 21 games for Blackburn and was actually nine goals ahead of Les Ferdinand in the race for top scorer.
Despite his injury, Blackburn managed to maintain their fourth place in the league until the end of the season. Shearer came back the following season all guns blazing with a record of 30 goals scored in every year before his world record move to Newcastle after Euro ‘96.
The race for top scorer was now wide open, but no one would overtake Shearer until 15 games later when Teddy Sheringham reached the summit and didn’t look back. Ferdinand kept pace for a while, but he couldn’t quite find those extra goals to make up the two goal difference.
For Sheringham, he had secured his place as one of the top attackers and he would become a mainstay in the Premier League scoring charts throughout those early years. A few years later he would be joined by Jürgen Klinsmann, who was part of the first wave of European strikers that eventually developed the Premier League into what it is today.
Le Tissier and Wright both had solid seasons personally, but their club sides couldn’t do it in the league. Southampton managed to stay in the league, without really showing any true quality outside of Le Tissier. Arsenal and Wright managed a mid table finish, which was really disappointing for the North Londoners, but it would be the cups in which they would excel; claiming a cup double against Sheffield Wednesday.
QPR had a great season with Ferdinand finishing second top scorer and Rangers finishing in 5th. His 20 goals propelled him into the national consciousness and his superb goal scoring record carried through to his big money move to Newcastle and eventual team up with Alan Shearer. These early days of the 90s really were Ferdinand’s prime years.
Of all the strikers who rose to prominence in the first season of the Premier League, the legacy of one is still felt today; Eric Cantona. His flamboyant and tempestuous nature had never been harnessed by any other manager until Ferguson. Cantona became a defining figure in the Premier League era. The Frenchman changed football in England.
Although Cantona was effective in front of goal, his creative play and development of the deep lying forward role left the greatest imprint on the pitch. Off it, his antics were well reported, but his club stuck by him and it paid dividends.
In that first season, Cantona managed nine goals in his 22 starts, but they were vital. United stormed to the title with a fantastic end of season run that blew away their competitors. In the iconic number 7 shirt, Ferguson’s lynchpin allowed United to perfect their fast paced attacking play.
Despite his short career at United and the Premier League, his dedication to training was the catalyst for the emergence of the Class of ‘92. Blessed with a hard work ethic already, the young group of players stayed behind after training with Cantona to refine their game. This allowed United to dominate the Premier League era, and Fergie’s fledglings to fill their trophy cabinets.
But there is on striker who defined those early Premier League years and it was Shearer. The huge transfer fee, Premier League title and endless amount of goals gave Shearer icon status. If not for the horrific injury he suffered, who knows how many Premier League goals he would’ve ended up with.
All of these strikers would have a huge impact on the early days of the Premier League with their goal scoring feats. You might assume that this meant England used their domestic talent to succeed in a World Cup or a European Championship. No such luck, although when football came home it almost happened.