Without giving too much away, Blackpool’s win last weekend sparked a little bit of debate (in my head, sure!) about the best Premiership debuts of all time. The floor was opened up to both players and clubs, and presence on the list was selected by factors including surprise, expectation and pressure.
Anyway, here goes:
10. Norwich City and Mark Robins
Ok, so it is slightly cheating. The start of the 1992/3 season was everyone’s Premier League debut. Brian Deane scored two goals to beat Manchester United, but the stars of the show were Norwich City and Mark Robins. They travelled to Highbury and taught Arsenal a footballing lesson (I would love to see Grant Holt try that now), winning 4-2. However, this was in no way a flash in the pan. Norwich would finish third in the league, and use that springboard to progress in the UEFA Cup the following season. Jeremy Goss, Bayern Munich, and Naaarwich folklore would be written.
9. Mario Stanic
In an era when Chelsea were snapping up foreigners at a faster rate than Angelina Jolie, Mario Stanic was not the most successful of the imports. But in August 2000, for one day only, there was a part of west London that was Mario World. The Croatian received a pass some thirty-five yards from goal. He juggled the ball twice on his knee, and unleashed a fierce volley which left Shaka Hislop stranded. Stanic added a second in a 4-2 win over West Ham. Stamford Bridge thought that they had found the new version of the Croat-tacker after Boban and Prosinecki
While it would be unfair to describe Stanic as a flop, he scored just five further goals in four years, before having to retire in 2004 with a serious knee injury. Of his fifty-eight Chelsea appearances, his first was by far the most memorable.
Reading had reached the Premier League in record style. Despite the 106 points, the Berkshire club was predicted to be relegated with some ease. Their first game was at home to Middlesbrough, and pundits’ predictions seemed apt when Stewart Downing and Yakubu gave Boro a 2-0 lead. But this prompted a spirited and stunning comeback, with goals from Dave Kitson, Steve Sidwell and Leroy Lita sealing a 3-2 win. Reading might not go mental that often, but the Madejski went wild.
It was a sign of things to come. Reading, and manager Steve Coppell in particular, took to the Premier Leauge like a duck to Hoisin pancake. Reading missed out on UEFA Cup qualification on the last day, but it mattered not. Reading had proved a footballing nation wrong. True to form, a year later, after the same experts had predicted them to stay up, the Royals dropped back into the Championship.
7. Phil Jones
It is not often that defenders get on these sort of lists, and that is a tribute to 18-year-old Jones. By the time he was selected to play against Chelsea in the Premier League in March 2010, the centre-back had already given a man of the match performance against Nottingham Forest in the Carling Cup five months previously.
Playing against his idol John Terry, Jones produced a series of stunning blocks and clearances as Rovers held on for a 1-1 drawn against the champions elect. He received praise from his manager, and Alan Hansen described his performance as “unbelievably good”.
It is too early to suggest that the teenager is England material, but having already played for the under 21s, another strong season at Blackburn will increase the fervour surrounding him.
6. Alan Smith
Of all the players on this list, Alan Smith is the only one to have scored with his first touch. Against Liverpool. At Anfield. At the Kop End. To Equalise. A star was born in Yorkshire as he finished with aplomb, igniting a performance from his Leeds side to win 3-1. As a young striker, he forced his way into David O’Leary’s first team plans, and scored 18 goals in Leeds’ ‘glory’ season, including a performance in the now ill-fated Champions League semi-final.
It is difficult to analyse Smith’s career. After previously announcing that he would never play for Manchester United, he did exactly that as soon as Leeds were relegated. He has played 19 times for England, a frightening stat in my opinion, and scored on his full debut. He was unfortunate when a bad leg break, back at Anfield, put him our the game for seven months. Smith’s goalscoring deserted him to such an extent (seven goals in 61 at United, none so far at Newcastle) that he has had to rebrand himself as a central midfield player. A career as a fans’ favourite workhorse had appeared out of nowhere.
5. Robbie Keane
There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Coventry shelled out £6million for a 19-year-old Division One striker. Although Keane had scored goals at Wolves, mid-table Coventry had broken the British record for a teenager. Any doubts were quickly quietened on his debut at home to Derby County. Robbie scored both goals in a 2-0 win, and the transfer fee was almost repaid instantly. Keane continued to show off some sublime finishing throughout the season, scoring 12 goals, and was sold to Inter Milan during the summer, making Coventry a £7million profit. Marcello Lippi, then Inter manager, described Keane as the best young player he had seen.
There is almost a tendency to be disappointed in what Keane has achieved. Although he has generated over £70million in transfer fees and scored 40 international goals, the Irishman has never scored more than sixteen league goals in a season.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy
Let’s be fair, Manchester United were expecting Ruud van Nistelrooy to score goals. They had paid £19million to bring him from PSV, which was considered by some to be a gamble after a serious knee injury a year previously. Ruud Ruud Ruud had shown fans a glimpse of what to expect with a goal against Liverpool in the Charity Shield, but a glimpse it truly was. On his Premier League bow he notched brace against Fulham, including the winner. He was clinical and effective, scoring 23 league goals in his first season, 10 in the Champions League, and was named Players’ Player of the Year. The Dutchman went onto score 150 goals in 219 games for United, including eight games consecutively on two separate occasions. Never has a horse looked so good.
Still banging them in for Hamburg (both goals this weekend against Schalke), Red Rum is the second top scorer in Champions League history.
3. Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann has arguably had the greatest first season impact of any Premiership signing. The German striker, who had helped knock England out of the 1990 World Cup and then win the final with some acrobatic simulation, was never going to be popular with rival supporters.
He quickly became a Spurs favourite though. On his debut, he scored twice to give Tottenham a 4-3 win at home to Sheffield Wednesday, and as everyone knows, the celebration soon followed. One Guardian journalist, who three months earlier written an article entitled ‘Why I hate Jurgen Klinsmann’ soon changed his loathing to love.
This was indicative of Klinsmann’s first stint in English football. It would only last 10 months, but he scored 21 goals and won the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
Yeah, OK it was only last week. And this weekend we have had 35 Premier League goals, six of which were dispatched past a hapless Blackpool defence. But still…the biggest accumulator buster for months (fuming!) was purely deserved. The Tangerine Army outplayed, out-thought and genuinely outclassed the Wigan League of Nations FC. Wigan were poor, Blackpool were irresistable. N’Zogbia, Boselli, Kirkland, Dave Whelan… your boys took one helluva beating. It may be a long, hard nine months, but for the 4,000 fans that crammed into the away end of the DW Stadium, “We are top of the league”.
1. Fabrizio Ravanelli
Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough made a number of glamour signings in the summer of 1996, including Brazilians Juninho and Emerson, but none more so than the White Feather, who had scored in the Champions League Final two months earlier.
Ravanelli’s £7million price tag did nothing to lower the expectation, and by the time the first game of the season against Liverpool came around, fervour had reached bubbling point on Teeside. Three times that afternoon Liverpool took the lead, and three times Ravanelli hauled Boro back into the game. The first was a penalty, the second the result of a well-timed run into the six-yard box, and the third a drilled finish from inside the penalty area. Liverpool were title challengers, Boro the potential pretenders to the Premiership throne.
Alas, the Riverside bubble burst. Ravanelli contributed 24 goals, but in vain as Boro were relegated. He led the club to two cup finals, but alienated himself by criticising the club’s training facilities, the town, and English life in general, despite being the highest paid footballer in the country. Fab Rav moved on to Marseille, but returned to Britain for spells with Derby and (somewhat bizarrely) Dundee.