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Every football club has its cult heroes. For one reason or another, these players stand out from the rest, earning their own nicknames or fan songs and leaving special legacies that will never be forgotten. They aren’t always the most gifted individuals or highly prolific goalscorers, but they endear themselves to the fans through hard work, loyal service, key goals, and memorable moments. These players were often unpredictable but always exciting to watch, and are still talked about many years after hanging up their boots.
Steed Malbranque (Fulham)
A fan favourite at multiple Premier League clubs, Steed Malbranque is best remembered for his starring role at Fulham, where he scored 32 goals in 172 Premier League appearances. Perhaps most importantly, he was the club’s top scorer in the 2002-03 season as Fulham valiantly battled against relegation to maintain their top-flight status.
Malbranque earned a spot in the hearts of Fulham fans for his exceptional work ethic. The Frenchman brought a new definition to that familiar footballing phrase: “giving 110%”. He didn’t always have the technical skill or flair to rival some of his teammates, but he could be relied upon to put in a huge effort, and if there’s one thing football fans always love, it’s a player who gives his all for the club every single time he steps out on the pitch.
Youri Djorkaeff (Bolton)
World Cup and European Championship winner Youri Djorkaeff was a surprise addition to the Bolton Wanderers squad in early 2002. He was part of Sam Allardyce’s new-look side, which also included Iván Campo and Jay-Jay Okocha, who both arrived a few months after Djorkaeff. Okocha ended up stealing most of the headlines during his spell in the North West, but the Nigerian wouldn’t have been as successful without Djorkaeff playing alongside him.
The World Cup winner scored and created some absolutely astonishing goals during his time at Bolton, including an exceptional bicycle kick against Charlton, and endeared himself to the fans with some super skills and classy performances, forming a strong partnership with Okocha and netting a total of 20 goals in 75 Premier League games.
Laurent Robert (Newcastle)
French winger Laurent Robert spent four seasons at Newcastle, scoring 22 goals in 129 league games. His stats weren’t particularly mind-blowing, but his goals certainly were. A free-kick specialist, Robert had a real knack for spectacular strikes, with set-piece screamers against Liverpool and Manchester United and an astonishing acrobatic goal against Fulham in 2004 living long in the memory of the Toon Army.
Robert eventually fell out with the management and moved on from the club, but still had a lot of love and respect for the fans, who also appreciated his loyal service and incredible goals. At the end of his final appearance in black and white, he walked over to the Gallowgate End and stripped right down to his underwear, throwing every bit of his kit into the crowd as a gesture of gratitude to the supporters.
Paul McGrath (Aston Villa)
Paul McGrath is still known as ‘God’ among the Holte End faithful, and that’s all you need to know about how much Aston Villa fans idolise the Irishman. McGrath came to Villa Park after several seasons with Manchester United. He was known for being a solid performer on his day, but injuries and off-field issues put an end to his time with the Red Devils.
Villa gave him a second chance and never looked back as McGrath became one of the club’s finest ever players. A defensive stalwart, the centre-back spent eight seasons with Villa and helped the club seriously contend in the league and cup competitions. With McGrath, the Second City side won two League Cups and claimed their best ever placing in the Premier League era as they finished 2nd in 1993.
Diego Forlan (Manchester United)
A far cry from his World Cup 2010 heroics for Uruguay, Diego Forlan was a bit of a flop at Manchester United. But the beauty of a cult hero is that they don’t necessarily need to be a raging success in every sense of the world; a single match or moment of greatness can elevate them to legendary status in the eyes of the fans, and that’s what happened with Forlan.
The Uruguayan forward came to Old Trafford after a couple of stellar seasons with Independiente in Argentina, but would only score 17 goals in 98 total appearances for the Red Devils. Two of those goals, however, were important enough to make him a hero. It was December 1, 2002, and Manchester United were away at Anfield for a clash with their greatest rivals. A four-minute brace against Liverpool gave United a memorable 2-1 win, earning Forlan his own fan song.
Paolo Di Canio (West Ham)
Many club heroes wear their hearts on their sleeves and there’s no finer example of an emotional, temperamental player than Paolo Di Canio. A tenacious, versatile forward, Di Canio could play in multiple positions and excelled at many clubs throughout his career, but shone particularly brightly during his time with West Ham, scoring some truly jaw-dropping goals like his inimitable volley against Wimbledon.
The Italian was known as a tough-tackling midfielder who could occasionally bend the rules of the game, but also had a strong sense of fair play, best demonstrated during a game against Everton. Di Canio could have scored, but instead grabbed the ball and stopped play after he saw that the opposition’s keeper was injured. With that act of good sportsmanship, 2000’s Hammer of the Year endeared himself not only to West Ham fans but to football followers all around the world.
Tugay Kerimoğlu, commonly known as Tugay, was in the twilight years of his career when he made a £1.3m move to Blackburn in 2001. He was 31 at the time and had excelled in his native Turkey, winning several titles with Galatasaray and impressing in the national side as well. Despite Tugay’s past successes, even the most optimistic of Rovers’ fans couldn’t have possibly imagined the legacy the midfielder would leave on the club.
Tugay ended up staying at Blackburn for eight seasons and was a key player for the side all the way through, winning the Player of the Year award in 2004 and scoring some absolutely sublime strikes. His final goal came at the age of 38, making him one of the oldest Premier League goalscorers in history.
Matt Le Tissier (Southampton)
The 1989-90 PFA Young Player of the Year, Matt Le Tissier spent 16 seasons with Southampton, scoring 209 goals in 540 games across all competitions. Those sorts of numbers wouldn’t look out of place beside the name of a top class centre forward, so the fact that Le Tissier was a midfielder just shows how uniquely talented and prolific he truly was.
He didn’t win any trophies with the Saints, but he was a beloved hero to every fan and was also one of the best penalty takers in English football history, converting 47 of 48 attempts. There was nobody better from 12-yards out and Le Tissier’s goals, both from the spot and open play, gave a lot of excitement to Southampton supporters over the years.
Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool)
Liverpool fans have had a long line of superstar forwards to enjoy over the years, but few embodied the fighting spirit of the club quite like Dirk Kuyt. Signed in 2006 from Feyenoord for the fee of £10m, Kuyt went on to become one of Liverpool’s most reliable attacking threats. Some cult heroes become famous for one or two moments of magic or a few special goals, but the list of Kuyt’s accomplishments at Anfield is almost endless.
Always turning up in the big games when it mattered most, Kuyt scored one hugely important goal after another, including key strikes in the Champions League and that unforgettable hat-trick against Manchester United in 2011. Whenever Liverpool needed a spark, Kuyt was the man to turn to. He left the club as a legend, helping Liverpool to a League Cup triumph in his final season.
Mario Balotelli (Manchester City)
Everyone has an opinion on Mario Balotelli, and plenty of them are negative, but if you talk to a Man City fan, there’s a good chance their eyes will light right up at the mere mention of the Italian bad boy’s name. Brought to the club in 2010, Balotelli stuck around for just three seasons and packed more madness into those years than most players manage in a lifetime.
From his iconic ‘Why Always Me?’ T-shirt during City’s memorable 6-1 drubbing of United to his ridiculous off-field antics that included setting off fireworks in his home and throwing darts at a youth player, Balotelli was a larger-than-life character for Man City. He received multiple red cards during his time in sky blue, unable to control his temper during key moments, but he also scored some stunning goals and famously played in Sergio Aguero for that legendary title-winning goal against QPR.