The role of midfielder is certainly the position on the football pitch that offers the most variety. It encompasses tough tackling defensive minded players, those who have the energy to dart from box to box, tricky wingers who love to whip in a cross, or silky number 10s with an eye for a killer through ball. We asked our writers who in their opinion they believe to be the ‘Greatest’ midfielder they’ve ever had the good fortune of watching over the years.
Rodney McCain- Bryan Robson
It’s almost impossible to do justice to this man’s impact on English football in a short commentary piece like this. Signed for a then-record British transfer fee of £1.5 million from West Bromwich Albion by new Manchester United boss Ron Atkinson in October 1981, Bryan Robson came as close to actually embodying a “one man team” as any player I’ve ever seen. He effectively WAS Manchester United for several years during the mid-1980s, as well as becoming England captain.
Joining a United side that wanted to challenge the growing domestic domination of rivals Liverpool, the most persuasive argument as to why that challenge ultimately failed is due to Robson’s frequent absences through injury, most of it self-inflicted due to his overwhelming drive to be a success, both personally and as the leader of his team.
Frankly, there was nothing that Bryan Robson couldn’t do very, very well; he was the ultimate all-rounder. Tackling, passing, heading, shooting; a motivator, a leader-by-example, a colossus amongst men. He scored 99 goals for United from midfield, and assisted countless more. His greatest moment in club football was probably putting a certain Diego Maradona in the shade when scoring two of United’s three goals as they overturned a first-leg 2-0 deficit against Barcelona in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup quarter-finals in March 1984.
Instrumental in United’s FA Cup successes of 1983 and 1985, it was no surprise that, having famously won their opening ten league games in a row, Atkinson’s side fell away after Robson sustained yet another bad injury in 1985-86, ultimately coming home in fourth position. Put simply, without Robson in the side, United were ‘half a team’.Under Alex Ferguson, Robson continued to captain United and, despite recurring injury issues, in 1990 he became the first man ever to captain a side to three FA Cup final victories. The following season he was again instrumental as United won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona.
Age and niggling injury started to take a terminal toll on the fabled warrior, but Robson finally achieved the league title winners’ medals his glittering career deserved, as joint-captain with Steve Bruce in 1993 and again in 1994. However, by then his role had diminished to bit-part player as younger men like Paul Ince and Roy Keane assumed his mantle.
Bryan Robson remains the greatest midfielder I’ve seen; he is my all-time favourite player, and one of the greatest players ever to pull on a Manchester United shirt.
James Bolam- Sócrates
Sócrates was more than just one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. Sure, as a player he was technically gifted, intelligent and graceful which belied his tall and thin frame. Topped off with a beard and headband he looked super cool and was part of that wonderful Brazil side of Zico and Falcão. A fully qualified Doctor, he studied medicine at the beginning of his playing career. He always remarked that football was just a hobby and that his true calling in life was medicine. He would resume this when his playing days were over. Perhaps Sócrates was wrong because when he retired from football he hardly practised it.
Sócrates was an intellectual with strong left-wing views. When he scored he would make the fist of socialism in celebration. Under Brazil’s military dictatorship he used his role as club captain to create Corinthians democracy. If there was no democracy in the country then he would create it at one of the nations biggest clubs. The team voted on everything from when training would be scheduled to whether they stopped for a drink on the way home from away games.
Sócrates even used football to further his political ends. He called for free elections in 1984 and declared that if the regime refused then he would go and play in Italy. Refused they did so Sócrates signed for Fiorentina. Despite him no longer being with us it’s clear what he would make of the current president of Brazil. He would give books to team-mates that were perhaps from poor uneducated backgrounds and insist they read them. He may have been a Doctor but Sócrates was a heavy drinker and smoker despite being aware of the acute effects it was having on his health. There was a bizarre spell at Garforth town where he arrived overweight and unfit.
Sócrates lifestyle finally caught up with him in 2011 when he died at the age of 57. He always said that he wanted to die on a Sunday when Corinthians won a title. December 4 was the Sabbath and later that day Corinthians drew 0-0 with fierce rivals Palmeiras which secured them the league title. Sócrates got his wish.
Yes, he perhaps could have done better when he eventually went to Italy and he should have won the World Cup with Brazil in 1982. You could argue that he wasn’t even the greatest midfielder in his team in 82 with Zico at the peak of his powers. Regardless, not only was Sócrates one of the best midfielders the world has seen on a football pitch, it was the other things off it that made him such a fascinating and vital character. He transcended the sport and that’s why for me he is the greatest midfielder to have graced a football pitch.
An 11″ x 14″ print of the Brazilian is available to purchase in the Football Pink store
Pete Spencer- Graeme Souness
Between 1978-1984 Graeme Souness was one of the best midfielders around. After Spurs couldn’t find space for him, and he outgrew Middlesbrough, Bob Paisley brought him to Anfield. Liverpool and Souness were made for each other. Once Joe Fagan put him in his place, he soon discovered success would be down to him, not anyone else.
He was dynamic, combative, influential and dominant. He took games by the scruff of the neck and altered them. His passing was efficient, precise and his goals, spectacular. His first goal, a volley from outside the box against Manchester United was voted fans’ goal of the season. Paisley made him captain in 1981, replacing Phil Thompson. Thompson may never have forgiven him, but the fans enjoyed the increased level of success on the pitch.
The respect Souness had for his manager was evident when he stepped aside to let Paisley lift the League Cup in 1983, his final season as boss.
In 1984 we saw peak-Souness. He scored the winning goal for Liverpool’s fourth successive League Cup win. They won their third successive league title at a canter.
In the European Cup, he excelled. After a physical challenge in the Semi-Final which left the Bucharest captain with a broken jaw, Souness knew he was a marked man for the return leg. He resisted all attacks on him to see them through to the club’s fourth, and his third, Final.
In a hostile atmosphere in Rome, Souness was immense. He thrived in such conditions and Liverpool were European Champions once again. It was his final appearance in a Liverpool shirt. He made 358 appearances and scored 56 goals.
In seven years at Anfield, he won five league titles, four League Cups, and three European Cups. He then moved onto successful careers at Sampdoria and then as player-manager at Glasgow Rangers.
Graham Hollingsworth- Steven Gerrard
Where to start with a man who could do it all?
Steven Gerrard burst on to the scene under Gérard Houllier, establishing himself in a side that would go on to win a League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup treble in 2001. Such was his stature in the team that he was made captain at just 23, ahead of many more established players.
His finest night in a Liverpool shirt is undoubtedly that infamous match in Istanbul, where he rallied his troops and had them fight back from 3-0 down, scoring the first goal himself, before filling in all over the pitch as required, to help them lift the Champions League for the fifth time.
Gerrard could tackle, pass, and position himself as well as any midfielder. He could play in the centre, just off the striker, out on the right, or at the base of midfield. He also was a prolific scorer, one of only four midfielders who have scored over 100 goals in the Premier League. His long-range efforts against Olympiakos in the Champions League and against West Ham in the FA Cup are just two that instantly spring to mine. ‘Ya Beauty’ as Andy Gray famously said.
A local boy who came good, who for years carried the weight and expectations of an entire city on his shoulders. Often surrounded by a team not up to Liverpool’s rivals standards, he undoubtedly would have won more with better players around him, or moving away from Merseyside.
However, two FA Cups, three League Cups, the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, FA Community Shield and a UEFA Super Cup, plus numerous players of the month/years awards, isn’t too shabby either.
An 11″ x 14″ print of Steven Gerrard is available to purchase in the Football Pink store
David Nesbit- Glenn Hoddle
Hear the phrase ‘silky midfielder’, close your eyes, and who springs to mind? Glenn Hoddle was born in Harlow in 1957 and rose from humble beginnings to become arguably the most naturally gifted English footballer of all time.
Most readily associated with the Tottenham Hotspur side of the mid-seventies to late-eighties, Hoddle portrayed both the vision and artistry of a genius at work at times. Equally adept with either foot, he was the best passer in the modern game with the ability to drop a perfectly-flighted ball on a sixpence from sixty yards.
His skills on the ball were phenomenal and his first touch supreme. His awareness and reading of the game were also top-drawer and no matter how closely an opponent was detailed to man-mark or shadow him, Hoddle always seemed to operate in a vacuum of his own.
His tangible rewards in the game were relatively meagre for one so abundantly talented, with a mere two FA Cups, one UEFA Cup and a single Ligue One title secured. A shockingly paltry total of 53 caps were won with England with the oft-repeated mantra that Hoddle was a ‘luxury player’, unwilling to do any of the spadework required of a typical English midfielder.
This was simplistic nonsense, as not only was Hoddle not afraid of getting stuck in when necessary but when a nation possesses a player as wonderfully gifted as Hoddle, then surely sides should be built around him and not the other way around?
Joe Harvey- Kaka
Brazilian superstars have eternally straddled the line between playmaker and party-goer. Just look at both Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, two unrivalled talents whose football genius cannot be questioned nor doubted, yet whose career ran parallel with frequent tabloid exploits.
Kaka, on the other hand, was a playmaker through and through. Firmly devoted to Jesus, grateful for anything, graceful at everything, in the mid-2000s, the young attacking midfielder from Gama ruled supreme.
The last player to be crowned before the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly began, Kaka’s Ballon d’Or in 2007 serves as a reminder that he really was, even if it seemed for just a fleeting moment, the best player in the world.
‘I belong to Jesus’, Kaka’s t-shirt famously read, having beaten Liverpool 2-1 in the 2007 Champions League final, exacting revenge for Istanbul just two years on.
Emerging from Sao Paulo at a young age, earning a place in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning squad, it was at AC Milan that Kaka established himself as one of football’s greatest midfielders. He may have dwindled under the shadows of Cristiano Ronaldo following his move to Real Madrid in 2009, plagued by incessant injuries and unable to convince Jose Mourinho he was worthy of frequent game time, yet his return to Milan saw him restore some of his former glory. Shipping out to the States in 2014, signing for Orlando City, with a brief interlude on loan at Sao Paulo, Kaka quickly fell off the radar (before returning last year in Hackney, but that’s another story).
At the height of his game, however, Kaka had it all. With an eye for a pass second to none, intricate footwork associated with all great Brazilians, flawless ball control and a silky, stylish, yet devastating technique, Kaka deserves a place on this list of midfield greats.
For more posters or t-shirts of other world-class midfielders, please check out the Football Pink store