Football Features

Ranked: iconic captains of the Premier League era

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:15, 15 August 2022

The Premier League era has seen some absolutely inspirational captains.

Whatever else you think of Premier League sides, they sure can produce a picture-perfect rendition of a captain. Something that appeals to our base expectations of what a captain should be. Somewhat shouty, resolutely committed and almost excessively masculine.

It doesn’t matter that one can be a great leader without two of those factors, being a great captain is not just being a great leader, it’s being a great figurehead. In many countries, the captain is an incidental figure, usually the most experienced player on the park.

Not in England. Here the captain means more. With that in mind, Squawka have ranked the top 16 captains of the Premier League era. Who is where? Read on to find out!

16. Sami Hyypia (Liverpool)

Years captain: 2000-2003

Highest Premier League finish: 2nd (2001/02)

The man who taught Steven Gerrard what it means to be a leader. The Finn took over the Liverpool captaincy in 2000 when Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Fowler were injury wrecks, and subsequently led the Reds to a cup treble followed by a second-place finish the season after.

15. Phil Neville (Everton)

Years captain: 2007-2013

Highest Premier League finish: 5th (2007/08 + 2008/09)

‘Neville The Lesser’ proved there was more to him than blonde tips when he moved to Everton, quickly becoming captain and helping David Moyes (yes, him) guide the side to successive fifth-place Premier League finishes, only just missing out on Champions League football.

14. Wes Morgan (Leicester City)

Years captain: 2012-2021

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2015/16)

Played well above his level to deliver unto the world the miracle of Leicester City being Premier League Champions. Only ranks so far down this list because his lack of leadership in the seasons surrounding that title triumph was damning. But for that one year? Captain Morgan sailed immortal.

13. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)

Years captain: 2015-present

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2019/20)

Jordan Henderson has come a long way in the six years since being made Liverpool captain. You wouldn’t think that Jurgen Klopp’s “mentality monsters” would need much guiding as they plough through Premier League opponents but every time Henderson misses significant amounts of time through injury, the Reds’ stiff defence turns to jelly. Maybe all that pointing and shouting is actually effective?

12. Stilyan Petrov (Aston Villa)

Years captain: 2009-2013

Highest Premier League finish: 6th (2009/10)

The Bulgarian was appointed captain in 2009 having just been voted Villa’s fans’ Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year. He then excelled, lifting his side to a high-point sixth-placed finish, the FA Cup final and the League Cup final all in his first season as skipper. Injury and then later serious illness cut short his captaincy, and without his leadership, Aston Villa collapsed into a black hole which they’ve recently emerged from.

11. Dennis Wise (Chelsea)

Years captain: 1993-2001

Highest Premier League finish: 3rd (1998/99)

At a time when Chelsea were full of expensive imports and flashy players, Dennis Wise existed to serve as a reminder of who they really were. Wearing the armband for nearly a decade, the rabid pitbull of a midfielder did nothing but make opponents’ lives miserable.

10. Gary Neville (Manchester United)

Years captain: 2005-2011

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2006/07 + 2007/08 + 2008/09 + 2010/11)

Long considered pure vice-captain material, Gary Neville proved his doubters wrong by taking over as skipper and doing a damn fine job. Injury meant he couldn’t always be there as United dominated in Europe, but he was always a fine ambassador for the club and kept everyone focused and honest.

9. Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)

Years captain: 2011-2014

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2012/13)

How do you improve on Neville as captain? Make him taller and scarier sounds about right. Nemanja Vidic was feared all across the league and respected too. A tall and imposing defender, he ruled by fear and ruled well. To date, he is the last Man United captain to lift a league title.

8. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)

Years captain: 2011-2019

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2011/12 + 2013/14 + 2017/18 + 2018/19)

Vincent Kompany, whose smile and affable demeanour made the petrodollar-powered ascension of Manchester City extremely palatable. Kompany is a quality defender and stern leader, the difference in City’s team and coherence between when he played at his peak and when he didn’t was like night and day. If he weren’t so injury prone he’d be well up this list, but still left the Etihad as a legend.

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7. Alan Shearer (Newcastle United)

Years captain: 1998-2006

Highest Premier League finish: 3rd (2002/03)

Hometown hero shuns big-name sides to make world-record transfer back to the club he’s loved all his life and then, as captain and striker, proceeds to literally lead from the front with a mountain river of inspirational and awe-inspiring goals. Some things are worth more than trophies. Alan Shearer’s epic run as Newcastle United captain is one of them.

6. Patrick Vieira (Arsenal)

Years captain: 2002-2005

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2003/04)

Vieira was asked to fill Tony Adams’ boots as Arsenal skipper. No pressure, then. Well, it certainly seemed like no pressure. The Frenchman was an instant hit, leading the Gunners to a level of dominance never before reached in the Premier League as they won the title undefeated in 2004, giving Vieira a slight advantage in his Captain’s War with Roy Keane (until Keane’s stunning riposte struck the final blow in early 2005). Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2005, with Vieira scoring the winning penalty before leaving the club and creating a leadership void they still haven’t filled over a decade later.

5. Steve Bruce (Manchester United)

Years captain: 1992-1996

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (1992/93 + 1993/94 + 1995/96)

Manchester United’s original Premier League captain. He originally “shared” the role with the ageing Bryan Robson for two years. Effectively Bruce was always skipper, but on the rare occasions Robbo could play, he’d wear the armband. A dynamic leader whose goals were crucial to United’s first and tone-setting triumph in 1993.

4. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Years captain: 2003-2015

Highest Premier League finish: 2nd (2008/09 + 2013/14)

The greatest Premier League player to have never won the title, by a million, billion, jillion miles. And he came so close as well, twice leading the Reds to within a hair’s breadth of glory with his unique brand of last-gasp goalscoring genius. Were it not for that fated slip…

3. Tony Adams (Arsenal)

Years captain: 1988-2002

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (1997/98 + 2001/02)

‘Mr. Arsenal’ for over a decade. He is living proof of Arsene Wenger’s restorative genius. Adams was a faded photograph but Wenger restored him into a glorious watercolour. Then Adams rewarded Wenger with rock-solid leadership and defensive organisation that absolved his manager from having to focus on defending at all. Adams had it covered. Two titles are almost ancillary to his consistent brilliance.

2. John Terry (Chelsea)

Years captain: 2004-2017

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (2004/05 + 2005/06 + 2009/10 + 2014/15 + 2016/17)

Terry had the pleasure of captaining some of the Premier League’s great sides at Stamford Bridge and had a knack for bringing squads together. Those PlayStation tournaments he organised in 2004 seemed trivial at the time, but they forged José Mourinho’s expensive squad of mercenaries into a genuine team in record time.

Terry’s leadership even had a brief resurrection in 2014/15, as he guided young Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill to form the spine of Chelsea’s defence as they claimed the Premier League title.

1. Roy Keane (Manchester United)

Years captain: 1997-2005

Highest Premier League finish: 1st (1998/99 + 1999/00 + 2000/01 + 2002/03)

What else can be said about Roy Keane? A captain-in-waiting for Manchester United’s first four Premier League triumphs, he inherited the armband from Eric Cantona and in his second season as skipper guided a young Red Devils team to an almost impossible treble. He then followed that up with two consecutive titles won with consummate ease.

A fourth title followed two years later as he led United to claw back the Champion Gunners. Keane was a serial winner, and under him, United were almost untouchable. It didn’t matter if you were Tim Sherwood or Zinedine Zidane, Roy Keane was going to outplay you and lead his team to outplay yours.

His battles with Vieira were a mad combination of the works of Frank Miller and David Mamet; all profanity, grotesquery and glory. Moreover, Keane in the Highbury tunnel (and later on the Highbury pitch) utterly dominating Vieira in early 2005 remains the high watermark of leadership in Premier League history.

The only opponent Keane couldn’t subdue with a combination of perceptive passes, hurricane profanity and spectacularly violent tackles was Father Time, who sapped his energy with no remorse until he had to leave Old Trafford mid-way through 2004/05.

But Keane remains the greatest captain the Premier League has ever seen.