Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 a number of French footballers have graced the turf of the country’s top and not so top football clubs. However, while many proceeded to disappoint and fall by the wayside a number established themselves as club legends and cult heroes for life. Here we take a look at 10 such players who fell into the latter category.
Castigated by French manager Gérard Houllier following France’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Ginola arrived on the Toon in 1995 with a reputation in France for being something of a maverick and a luxury player, but his range of silky skills, memorable strikes and countless assists for Les Ferdinand et al endeared him to the Geordie faithful immediately as Kevin Keegan’s all out attack philosophy so nearly brought Newcastle a first top league title since 1927. Ginola graced St James’ Park for two seasons before winning the League Cup and the Premier League’s Players Player of the Season award in 1999 following a stellar season in North London with Spurs. A cult hero both on Tyneside and in North London, off the pitch Ginola also attracted legions of female admirers as the face of popular shampoo brand L’Oréal.
If a club has ever felt the impact of losing its inspirational leader as greatly as Arsenal did when Patrick Vieira departed North London after nine seasons in 2005, it is difficult to recollect. The Gunners’ midfield enforcer developed into a complete footballer under Arsène Wenger’s tutelage and relished his much-publicised rivalry with Manchester United captain and fellow hard man Roy Keane. Who could forget their heated pre-match spat in the tunnel at Highbury? Never one to shy away from a confrontation, Vieira who inherited the club captaincy from the legendary Tony Adams, enjoyed three Premier League title triumphs with Arsenal and his never-say-die attitude on the pitch afforded him cult status with the supporters before his departure for Juventus. Despite the pleas from Arsenal supporters for Wenger to purchase a ‘new Vieira’ the French manager has never succeeded in identifying such a player and hence Arsenal have now gone 13 years since Vieira led them to their last title triumph.
What can be said about Thierry Henry that hasn’t already been said? The Frenchman arrived at Highbury in 1999 on the back of an underwhelming spell on the wing at Juventus. However, after taking time to settle into English football, the quickfire Henry was employed by Arsène Wenger as a striker and went on to repay his fellow Frenchman’s faith in him by firing Arsenal to two Premier League titles including the 2003-04 ‘Invincibles’ vintage. The man with the golden touch also helped the Gunners to the Champions League final in Paris in 2006 only for 10-man Arsenal to lose out to Barcelona despite Sol Campbell’s early opener. Distraught Arsenal fans watched their hero depart North London to join the Catalan club in 2007 but not before he had broken Cliff Bastin’s 59-year reign as Arsenal’s record goalscorer. Henry returned to the club on loan in 2012 and ended his two month spell at Emirates Stadium in fairytale fashion by netting the winner against Sunderland in his last ever game for Arsenal to further extend his record to 228 goals for the Gunners.
Arriving from Marseille in the summer of 2015, Payet wasted little time establishing himself as the jewel in West Ham’s crown with a series of spectacular goals, skills and assists during his first season in East London. A free kick expert, after helping the Hammers to secure Europa League qualification, Payet’s burgeoning reputation on the world stage soared during Euro 2016 with a sublime left-footed strike against Romania and further goals against Albania and Iceland to help Les Bleus to the final where they eventually lost out to Portugal. But after shunning rumours of interest in him by a number of the games biggest clubs to sign a new five-and-a-half year contract early in 2016 and winning West Ham’s Player of the Year award, Payet, by now a cult hero with the fans, refused to play for the club in January 2017 effectively forcing Slaven Bilić to allow him a move back home to Marseille. Unsurprisingly his previous cult hero status has now been firmly revoked.
‘Le Grande Eric‘ landed in England in 1992 at Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United and in only 15 appearances inspired the Yorkshire club to their first league title in 18 years. However, the opportunity to join Manchester United proved too good to turn down and in only five seasons at Old Trafford, Cantona cemented his place as one of the club’s greatest ever players and an idol to United’s adoring fans. The eccentric and often controversial Frenchman helped deliver United the first ever Premier League title and the club’s first top division triumph in 25 long years. A glorious double followed before an eight-month ban for kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park in 1995 ensued. Cantona, who always wore his collar up on the pitch, returned the following season to inspire United to another double with the only goal of the game in United’s FA Cup final win over great rivals Liverpool. But in 1997 at just 31 years of age and after securing a fifth Premier League winners medal, ‘The King‘ as he was christened by United fans ensured God-like status for life in retiring from the game at the peak of his powers.
When Sam Allardyce announced the signing of World Cup and European Championship winner Youri Djorkaeff on a permanent two-year contract in 2002, fans of the previously unfashionable Bolton Wanderers may have been forgiven for believing they were dreaming. Djorkaeff had graced teams of the stature of Monaco, PSG and Inter Milan during his impressive career. But any fans assuming the 33-year-old’s stay at the Reebok would be a flash in the pan and motivated by money were sorely mistaken as Djorkaeff and fellow future cult heroes Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan Cámpo inspired the Trotters to the 2004 League Cup final and eighth place in the final league standings, their highest-ever Premier League finish at the time. His class and presence opened the door for Allardyce to bring in more internationally renowned players and his stay in the North West of England saw him return 20 goals in 75 league games to firmly establish his status as a cult hero among Trotters fans.
Like Djorkaeff before him, Christophe Dugarry arrived at Premier League also rans Birmingham City as a World Cup and Euro 2000 winner. His decision to move to the Midlands outfit on loan in 2003 was seen as major coup for the Blues and Dugarry earned himself everlasting cult hero status as his presence and five goals in four games averted the real threat of relegation in his first season. Often accused of being a lazy footballer, Dugarry signed a permanent contract at St. Andrews the following season but after just one goal in 15 matches he left the club by mutual consent and retired soon after in 2005. His contribution during the 2002-03 season has seen Dugarry inducted into Birmingham City’s Hall of Fame and he remains a cult hero of Blues fans today.
When Chelsea purchased Leboeuf from French club Strasbourg for £2.5 million in 1996 it marked the beginning of the club’s resurgence as a force to be reckoned with in English football. The cultured centre-half possessed an array of passing to be envious of and also enjoyed the knack of chipping in with a number of important goals, mainly from the penalty spot. A defensive lynchpin alongside Marcel Desailly at the heart of the Blues’ defence between 1998 and 2001, Leboeuf replaced the suspended Laurent Blanc in the French team that defeated Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final in 1998. After also winning a Euro 2000 winner’s medal, he departed Stamford Bridge in 2001 for Marseille with two FA Cups, a League Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup medal to his name and his standing as a fans favourite remains as strong as ever today.
A lot has been said about Liverpool’s French centre-half who arrived from Paris St-Germain in 2013 for £18 million, and not all of it has been complimentary. Tall and sometimes ungainly, Sakho struggled initially to convince the Kop that he could be an adequate replacement for the recently departed stalwart defenders Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger. However, Sakho’s strength in the air and tackling ability soon won over the Kop as he established himself as a firm fans favourite down to his tough playing style, slightly eccentric character and charity work in the local Liverpool community and further afield. However, his eccentricities irked Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp into sending him out on loan last term and his future at Anfield looks bleak despite the Reds’ obvious defensive frailties.
The current captain of both Spurs and the French national team, Lloris moved to the Premier League in 2012 after four seasons at Lyon. After impressing in his first two seasons at the club Lloris was named by Mauricio Pochettino as the club’s permanent captain and his superb performances between the sticks led the club to challenge for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 league titles, ultimately finishing third and then second. Lloris recently signed a new contract to stay in North London until 2022 and although the club missed out on a first league title since 1961, he has cemented his position as a cult hero among fans and celebrated by putting an end to Arsenal’s annual St. Totteringham’s Day celebrations as Spurs finished above the Gunners for the first time in 22 seasons.
If you fancy a flutter on Lloris captaining Spurs to a long-awaited title next season or maybe on Sakho’s next destination if he leaves Liverpool why not for the best available odds now?
Chris qualified from the University of Brighton in 2007 with a degree in Sports Journalism and is a sports fanatic, spending pretty much all of his money following the Welsh national football team all over Europe (and yes spending five weeks on tour with Wales in France at Euro 2016). He has written for numerous websites and has two fully published football biographies to his name. Chris also enjoys rugby union, cycling and politics and enjoys a regular (okay daily!) punt on football.