Happy Birthday to John Obi Mikel – the Nigerian has turned 29 years young today!
Chelsea‘s midfield enforcer remains a divisive figure – a genius to some and a fraud to others – but after a decade of producing unsung performances at Stamford Bridge, during which he has won every title on offer, he is unquestionably one of the true cult heroes of the Premier League‘s modern era.
So what better way to celebrate the Nigerian international’s big day than compiling a select XI of the greatest cult heroes to ever grace the Premier League? Some are famed for their servitude and loyalty, others their ability to juxtapose the ridiculous with the sublime and a few for their under-appreciated talent, but all are deserving of a place in a team alongside the one and only Mikel.
Is there someone we’ve forgotten in this special Cult Heroes XI, FootballFanCast readers? Let us know by commenting below!
There have been countless quirky goalkeepers throughout the Premier League era, but few could transition from sublime to ridiculous as suddenly as Heurelho Gomes. His name became synonymous with gaffes at Tottenham Hotspur, where he produced particularly infamous errors against AC Milan and Real Madrid in the Champions League. Chaos always ensured whenever coming off his line.
But to overlook the Brazilian’s abilities would be a disservice. In truth, he’s an incredibly talented shot stopper who made 130 appearances for the Lilywhites across all competitions and owns some very impressive Premier League records. He’s the only goalkeeper to save two penalties in two separate Premier League games – his second coming for Watford against West Brom last weekend – and boasts the best save percentage – 32% – of any PL goalkeeper to face 20 spot kicks or more.
Mikel and Tony Hibbert are very much kindred spirits, famed for their unassuming styles of play and becoming part of the furniture at their respective clubs. Indeed, the right-back is into his 16th campaign at Everton and still part of their first-team squad at the age of 35 – albeit he is yet to feature in any competition so far this season.
But his closest association with Mikel regards goals – or more accurately, a distinct lack of. Hibbert has never scored in a competitive fixture for the Toffees, his only goal coming in his only testimonial back in August 2012 – a below-the-wall free kick that lead to a small pitch invasion.
A Mersey-born, boyhood Everton fan who never came close to representing England despite making 327 appearances in all competitions, Hibbert will go down as one of the greatest servants in Goodison Park history.
Nominative Determinism – when your name seemingly creates an inevitable destiny, particularly in regards to profession. The example in this instance being centre-back Robert Huth, who has made a career out of hoofing the ball as far away as possible from his own goal.
The towering German may not be a classic Premier League cult hero, but Leicester City’s title-winning miracle could cement his place as one come the end of May. He’s been a crucial influence on the Foxes’ incredible rise to the summit of the English top flight and since signing from Stoke City in January 2015, their win percentage with the ‘Berlin Wall’ in the starting XI is a whopping 57.4%.
When drunken students throughout the British isles down pints of snakebite whilst chanting your name, you know you’re at least on the peripheries of becoming a cult hero. Indeed, Kolo Toure is one of the few players to represent three top Premier League clubs – Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool – but remain appreciated by all, perhaps for the humorous aura that always appears to accompany him, if not his dogged defending.
The 35-year-old is coming to the end of his career, with his Anfield contract set to expire this summer, but will undoubtedly be remembered fondly by the Premier League audience. He’s also a two-time Premier League winner, three-time FA Cup winner and member of Arsenal’s famous ‘Invincibles’ starting XI.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s star-studded squads were always supported by players whose grit, determination and loyalty to their boss exceeded their footballing ability, and nobody epitomised that trend better than utility man, John O’Shea. The Irishman played in every single position during his 393 appearances for the Red Devils, ranging from goalkeeper to striker, and was always good value for the last-minute strikes United became synonymous with under Fergie…
But O’Shea’s cult heroics aren’t limited to his Old Trafford tenure. On his 100th appearance for Ireland, the 34-year-old scored an equaliser against world champions Germany with the last kick of the game. He’s also captained Sunderland to several Premier League survivals – a role he often doesn’t receive due credit for.
Who else but John Obi Mikel? The unequivocal master of simply standing in the spot between defence and midfield and refusing to vacate it under any circumstances. Some claim he’s a genius, others a fraud – but the results speak for themselves and the Nigerian international has won everything there is to win throughout his ten seasons at Stamford Bridge, including two Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, a Champions League title and a Europa League title.
Dubbed ‘the human full-time whistle’, few in world football are capable of turning a game into an unwatchable stalemate as effectively as Mikel. His Blues tenure may come to an end this summer – although that’s been said practically every summer – but the 28-year-old will always be held in the highest esteem amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful.
Tugay wasn’t much of a runner, a tackler or goalscorer but remains one of the classiest midfielders to ever grace the Premier League, oozing technical quality and receiving critical acclaim from Sir Alex Ferguson, Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi and former manager Mark Hughes – who once claimed he should be playing for Barcelona – to name a few.
Indeed, the former Turkey star was almost a poor man’s Andrea Pirlo, but prominence came a little too late in his career to transition it into trophies – he was already 31 by the time he began dazzling the Premier League for Blackburn Rovers following over a decade at Galatasaray and a short stint at Rangers.
Yet Tugay is still remembered fondly and remains a stock under-appreciated favourite of any self-respecting footballing hipster.
James Milner is the epitome of an unsung hero – adored by managers yet maligned by fans who often accuse him of being little more than a workaday workhorse lacking in star quality.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with Milner’s achievements; he lifted two Premier League titles at Manchester City and has represented England on a whopping 58 occasions; and you can see why managers like him so much, as he’s equally comfortable on either foot, incredibly industrious, highly experienced, versatile and a consummate professional.
When you’ve got your own spoof Twitter account, ‘Boring James Milner’, and are occasional referred to as ‘Hamez Milner’ following rare moments of brilliance, you know you’re a true cult hero in the making.
“Off the crossbar like Tony Yeboah,” remarked grime artist Big Narstie in his greatest hit, Gas Leak. Indeed, from 1995 to 1997, the Ghana international dazzled Leeds United and Premier League fans alike with his succession of long-range strikes that cannoned off the woodwork and into the onion bag, amassing 32 goals in 66 top flight appearances in total for the Elland Road outfit.
But injuries curtailed the winger-forward’s first-team involvement at Leeds and differences with manager George Graham saw him fade into relative ambiguity as quickly as he rose from it, returning to the Bundesliga before seeing out his final years with Al Ittihad in Qatar.
Nonetheless, Yeboah produced some of the greatest goals in Premier League history, particularly his 1995/96 Goal of the Season against Wimbledon and wonder-strike against Liverpool in the same season. He also scored three hat-tricks during his time at Elland Road – including one against Monaco in the UEFA Cup.
One of the most unorthodox attackers the Premier League has ever witnessed, Jonathan Walters isn’t particularly quick, talented on the ball or deadly in front of goal – not a deadly recipe. Rather, an impeccable work-rate and penchant for the ugly side of the game made him a crucial part of the Stoke City starting XI under Tony Pulis, to the extent that he set a new club record of featuring in 102 consecutive Premier League games.
The Irishman notoriously scored two own goals and missed a penalty during a 4-0 defeat to Chelsea during the 2013/14 campaign, but his overall return for the Potters is nothing to be sniffed at, reaching double figures across all competitions during all but one of his five campaigns at the Britannia Stadium.
Arguably the greatest player to ever grace Upton Park during the Premier League era, notching up a whopping 48 goals in 118 league appearances, it was only outrageous antics and an overzealous personality that stopped Paolo Di Canio reaching the pinnacle of the beautiful game.
Indeed, the Italian was blessed with incredible flair, netting prowess and tenacity – but that latter trait often caused as much trouble as good, serving an eleven-match ban for pushing over referee Paul Alcock whilst at Sheffield Wednesday and famed for his on-pitch argument with a young Frank Lampard as the two wrestled over a chance to take a spot kick during a 5-4 thriller against Bradford.
A self-professed alignment to fascism has only further fuelled controversy surrounding the forward, but cult hero status lies in Di Canio’s unpredictability. Despite the aforementioned issues, he won the FIFA Fair Play award in 2001 – catching the ball instead of passing it into an open net as Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard laid injured on the ground.
That moment alongside a flying volley against Wimbledon that was later voted Premier League Goal of the Decade are what has cemented Di Canio’s place in this select XI.