The British Players That Reached Champions League Finals with Foreign Teams

When people generally think of Brits abroad, they either picture drunk Liverpudlians vomiting on strippers somewhere in Spain or David Beckham bringing British glamour and good looks to places like Los Angeles, Miami, Madrid, Milan or indeed the best stopover to buy some spices in the world. The old adage that British players don’t play abroad still stands true to this day, even in this hyperglobalist stage of world football, where players rarely stick around a single club or their home country for too long.


The advent of the top 5 leagues has meant that Western Europe has concentrated footballing talent from around the world and stories like Celtic, Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade winning the European Cup with completely homegrown squads have become a thing of the past. Similarly, national teams are now equally cosmopolitan in terms of where the players play their club football, with Brazil being the best example.


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Speaking of Brazil, they are the ultimate footballing exporters and you can find Brazilian players on every continent except Antarctica and you can be damn sure that as soon as we can melt those pesky icecaps and we can get some pitches going there, 34-year-old Gabriel Santos is going to have one last hurrah at Halley Research Station FC.


Funnily enough, most lists of the countries with the most players active abroad regularly have England listed in the top 10, however, if you delve deeper you see that most of them play in Scotland or Wales, or other English-speaking countries like Australia or the US.


The reasons as to why this happens, from the Premier League being so financially dominant to the island mentality have been covered extensively so we can forget the whys and focus on some of the greatest exploits of Brits on the continent as we take a look at British players who have reached European Cup or Champions League finals with teams outside of Britain.


Even though the European Cup came into existence all the way back in 1955, it took more than 10 years for any British players to reach a final, and when they did it was with Celtic and later with Manchester United. After the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italians, the Dutch and finally the Germans had their periods of dominance in European football, it was the turn of the English.


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During the late 70s and early 80s, English teams won six European Cups on the bounce and slowly but surely, due to the amount of talent and the popularization of transfers, British players started becoming active abroad and it is in 1979 that we find our first inclusion on the list. The only trouble is, this particular player was retired and managing Malmö but I decided to include him nonetheless as his story is a very interesting one.


Long before Julian Nagelsmann or Will Still redefined the term young manager, Bob Houghton got his A License and went into management at just 23 during the 70s, a time when young adults weren’t really trusted with positions of power. After it became apparent that a professional career would not be on the cards for him, failing to impress at Fulham and Brighton, Houghton made his first forays into management, becoming a player-manager at Hastings United and studied under Alan Wade, who was the head of the FA at the time.


He then moved on at Maidstone United, where he was reunited with his former schoolmate Roy Hodgson and worked as an assistant under Bobby Robson at Ipswich Town. Meanwhile, Malmö were looking to experience somewhat of a revival and were on the lookout for an English manager, with the Swedes having had previous positive experiences with such appointments, most famously with George Raynor, who led the Swedish national team to the 1958 World Cup Final.


So, when a call came into Alan Wade asking him to make some recommendations for the new Malmö job, Houghton was suggested.  He immediately convinced the Swedes that his age was just a number, providing a full breakdown of the squad’s strengths and weaknesses in his interview and learning Swedish in just two months.


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His impact was immediate as the team won back-to-back league and cup doubles employing a 4-4-2 with zonal marking and quick counterattacks drilled into a fully local squad, with 10 of the players coming from the city of Malmö itself. Impressed with these performances, the president of Halmstads decided to get an Englishman of his own, bringing in Houghton’s friend Roy Hodgson in 1976.


Together they became known as English Roy and English Bob and after English Roy managed to take the 1976 Allsvenskan title from English Bob, Houghton came back the next season to win the league, which meant the team would play in the 1978-79 edition of the European Cup.


Eliminating Monaco, Dynamo Kyiv, Wisla Krakow and Austria Wien, Malmö traveled to the Olympiastadion in Munich to face Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, who had an equally meteoric rise. The game was decided by only one goal, scored by Trevor Francis right before half time, proving to everyone why Clough had made him Britain’s first £1 million player.


After taking a Swedish team further than anyone before or since and revolutionizing Swedish football alongside Roy Hodgson, which influenced Sven-Goran Eriksson amongst others, Houghton continued his maverick career in Greece, the US, Saudi Arabia, back in Sweden for a while, Switzerland, the US again, China, Uzbekistan and India, also managing the Indian and Chinese national teams before retiring in 2011.


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Just one year later Brian Clough and his Nottingham Forest side would break another English heart, this time the one beating in Kevin Keegan’s chest. I have already done a full article about Keegan’s blockbuster transfer to Hamburg, but long story short, it was basically one of the first high-profile transfers of an English player to the continent.


Under the leadership of CEO Peter Krohn, Hamburg became one of the first teams in Germany to sign a sponsor in Campari and his unorthodox methods of promotion (such having the team play in pink to attract more female fans to the stadium) started paying off. Hamburg thus became a rising power in the Bundesliga, both in terms of performances, but especially in terms of finances.


The big-money contract they signed with Hitachi enabled them to shock the European footballing world by bringing in Keegan in 1977. During his time at the club the Englishman won two Ballon d’Ors and helped Hamburg win the 1979 edition of the Bundesliga. He stayed on next season and was instrumental in the club reaching the 1980 European Cup Final, beating Real Madrid 5-1 at the Volksparkstadion along the way.


However, Nottingham Forest showed their experience in the next game, negating Hamburg’s attacking prowess by playing defensively, and John Robertson’s goal in the 20th minute sealed the win for the English team. At the end of that season, Mighty Mouse, as he was lovingly nicknamed by HSV fans, handed in a transfer request and moved to Southampton, before joining Newcastle two years later.


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Having retired in 1985 he moved to Spain with his family and stated that he would never go into management, but in 1992 Newcastle came calling and Keegan answered. In his first season, he narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier, before leading his side to promotion to the newly founded Premier League the next year.


Despite finishing third already in his debut season and building his team dubbed “The Entertainers” containing Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand and David Ginola amongst others, the experience of Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United side meant that the best Newcastle could do was finish as runners-up.


He moved on to Fulham after that, who had just been bought by Mohamed Al Fayed but couldn’t lead them to promotion, before getting the England job after Glen Hoddle’s horribly insensitive interview got him sacked. Keegan’s time in charge of the England national team could very well be described as disastrous given the talent he had at his disposal.


From there he took Manchester City back into the Premier League during the early 2000s and built a squad containing Peter Schmeichel, Nicolas Anelka and Steve McManaman amongst others but left in 2005 after a bad run of form announcing his retirement. However, Newcastle needed his help once again in 2008, who had just been acquired by Mike Ashley one year prior.


With Obafemi Martins, Michael Owen and Mark Viduka up front Newcastle avoided relegation in emphatic fashion finishing 12th. However, just as the next season went underway in a promising fashion Keegan resigned, stating a lack of support in the transfer market.


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A very public court case followed where Keegan was seeking compensation and Mike Ashley was demanding reparations for damages to his public image (as if somehow damaging such a public image is even possible). Keegan was awarded £2 million leaving football management for good.


 I previously mentioned Hamburg’s 5-1 thrashing of Real Madrid in 1980 and the only goal that Los Blancos scored that night went to our next inclusion Laurie Cunningham. Cunningham was one of the very first black players to attain superstar status in England and his performances for West Bromwich Albion alongside fellow black players Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson earned him a £950,000 move to Real Madrid in 1979.


He thus became the first British player to star for Los Blancos and immediately helped them win a league and cup double in his first season. His next season was cut short by injury, which meant he missed most of the season right up until the 1981 European Cup Final. Held at the Parc des Princes, Real would face Liverpool, who were one of the best sides in Europe at the time, having previously won the 1977 and 78 editions.


Both teams basically canceled each other out for the duration of the game and Real’s main issue was the ineffectiveness of Cunnigham. He had not been at his best during that game, most likely suffering the effects of his extended time on the sidelines and Real could not get anything out of their most creative player.


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An 82nd-minute goal by Alan Kennedy sealed the win for the Reds and Cunningham’s Los Blancos career started to slowly go downhill. Another thigh injury hampered his preparations for the next season and he was infamously sent off in a UEFA Cup quarter-final clash against Kaiserslautern, which Real went on to lose 5-0.


The next season two new foreign signings filled up the designated foreign player spots and Cunnigham spent most of his time on the bench before returning to England with Manchester United on loan in 1983, where he was reunited with Ron Atkinson, his former manager at West Brom.


Short spells with Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester, Rayo Vallecano and Charleroi followed, almost all of them hampered by injuries before Cunningham joined Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang on a short-term deal in 1988. He came on in the second half of the 1988 FA Cup Final, which Wimbledon unexpectedly won against an all-conquering Liverpool and returned to Spain with Rayo Vallecano.


After scoring the goal that helped the team secure promotion to the Primera Division, he was sadly killed in a car crash in Madrid on the morning of 15 July 1989 at just 33 years old. He was widely considered as one of the best English players during his time, despite being constantly overlooked by the national team managers and remains a pioneer of black representation in English football.


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Six years after Cunningham lost his final our first Scottish inclusion on the list would also lose his, namely Steve Archibald. Archibald came to prominence during the late 70s when his goal-scoring exploits helped Aberdeen to win the Scottish Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson.


This earned him a move to Tottenham in 1980 where he would earn the top scorer award in his first season. Having won two FA Cups and one UEFA Cup at White Hart Lane the big clubs on the continent took notice and in 1984 Barcelona paid £1,150,000 to bring him to Catalunya. The man behind this decision was manager Terry Venables.


Venables had spend all of his playing career in London, winning a League Cup at Chelsea and an FA Cup at Spurs. During his time with the two rivals, he showed real promise but clashed with the managers of both clubs. Possibly prompted by a desire to do better than the men who treated him poorly he passed his coaching badges at just 24 and transitioned into management at his last club, Crystal Palace.


He took Palace from the depths of the Third Division to First Division promotion and even led the table for a week before finishing 13th. After the second-season syndrome hit Palace hard Venables moved back to the Second Division and took QPR to a fifth-place finish in the First Division, which brought him to the attention of the big European clubs.


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His move to Barcelona saw him nicknamed “El Tel” and with Archibald up front and a well-oiled 4-4-2 Barcelona won their first Primera Division title in more than 10 years. The British duo found themselves on the way to three finals in 1986, winning the Copa de la Liga and losing the Copa del Rey.


The club faced a difficult European Cup campaign, eliminating Sparta Prague and Porto on away goals and winning 2-1 on aggregate against Juventus, lining up a semi-final clash against IFK Göteborg. The first leg, played in Sweden, was an unmitigated disaster losing 3-0 and Barca seemed all but eliminated.


However, a spectacular remontada at Camp Nou saw them score three to take the game to a penalty shootout, which they won, meaning that Barca would play their first European Cup final since 1961, when they lost to Eusebio’s Benfica. Sadly, for them, their luck ran out in the final against Steaua.


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Whilst playing what was basically a home game in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville against an opponent no one seemed to take seriously, Steaua held the Spanish giants to a 0-0 draw before their keeper Helmuth Duckadam saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties. Archibald did not take a spot-kick as he was substituted off in the 100th minute and his Barcelona career was effectively over after that season.


Despite being beloved by the fans and scoring a goal every other game, Venables brought in Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes, which meant that Archibald could not take part in the team’s games due to the limit on foreign players. Archibald was subsequently loaned out to Blackburn Rovers before embarking on a journeyman career, which saw him move to Hibernian, go back to Spain with Espanyol and play for seven clubs in four years all across England, Scotland and Ireland.


Roughly at the same time Archibald departed the Camp Nou, Venables returned to England with Tottenham, bringing Gary Lineker with him and signing Paul Gascoigne, winning the FA Cup in 1991. He took charge of the England national team for two years in 1994 leading them to a seminal defeat against Germany at the 1996 Euros before stepping down.


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He followed that with unsuccessful stints managing the Australian national team and Crystal Palace. At the turn of the millennium, he helped Middlesbrough stay in the top flight before presiding over Leeds United’s massive sales campaign, all whilst working on and off as a pundit. Venables sadly passed away last year in November after a long illness.


His former player Steve Archibald also moved into management with East Fife before retiring to Spain for a while during the late 90s. However, when Airdrieonians were in deep financial trouble in 2000, Archibald positioned himself as a potential buyer and was awarded the day-to-day running of the club installing himself as manager.


Archibald used his contacts to sign a number of Spanish players and won the 2001 Scottish Challenge Cup. Despite the Airdrie fans’ hopes the takeover bid failed and Archibald left alongside the Spanish contingent in 2001 and has been retired ever since.


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In the last-ever season of the straight knockout format of the European Cup and two years before it was erroneously rebranded to the Champions League, the 1991 final served as a reminder of why the old format was so good. It felt like a watershed moment across the landscape of European football, with the Iron Curtain having fallen less than two years prior and Yugoslavia having not long left, the Premier League’s inception being but a season away and the Champions League soon coming into existence, money would be king.


It was fitting then that Marseille and Red Star Belgrade offered us one last hurrah and we can find our next inclusion in Marseille’s line-up for that game. Chris Waddle joined Newcastle in 1980 linking up with the aforementioned Kevin Keegan to lead the Magpies to First Division promotion in 1984. This saw him earn a move to Tottenham, where despite not winning anything (as was slowly becoming tradition) he was one of the standout players.


Five years later Marseille made him the third most expensive player of all time, paying £4.5 million for his services. During his time on the South Coast of France, Marseille won three French League titles and Waddle became known as Magic Chris. His first major disappointment came during the penalty shootout that saw West Germany eliminate England at the 1990 World Cup, where Waddle missed his spot kick.


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Just one year later Marseille and Red Star were preparing for their upcoming clash in the European Cup final. The Yugoslav team arrived early in Italy and immediately put their players in a state of quasi-quarantine in order for them to focus on the upcoming game. Another beneficial side effect of this decision was that the circling wolves of Western Europe’s footballing elite who were eyeing up Red Star’s young players were kept at bay.


Italian soil did not seem to have an agreeable effect on Waddle’s fortunes as, after a 0-0 draw Marseille succumbed to a penalty shootout defeat, making Red Star only the second Eastern European team to lift the European Cup. In 1991 he moved back to England with Sheffield Wednesday and just as Marseille won the 1993 Champions League, Wednesday lost both the FA Cup and League Cup Finals.


Following short spells with Falkirk, Bradford, Sunderland, Burnley and several lower-league teams he became a pundit. Widely considered to be one of the best attacking midfielders in Europe during his playing days, I think it’s criminal that many people, including me until researching this article, have forgotten about Magic Chris.


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What is even more egregious is that many people see our next inclusion, nowadays, as just another lower-half Premier League manager. Growing up, people like Tony Pulis, Martin O’Neill or Paul Lambert were basically interchangeable for me (as you can tell I didn’t know much about football back then).


They were all part of a rotating cast of managers who took on jobs at relegation-threatened or mid-table Premier League sides and played a brand of football that was increasingly becoming outdated in Europe. Nowadays, I still don’t know too much about football but I have learned that not only did Martin O’Neill win two European Cups in his playing days at Forest but Paul Lambert had one of the best performances of a British player in a Champions League final of all time.


At just 17, Lambert won the 1987 Scottish Cup with St Mirren and sadly for him had to be sent home immediately after the ceremony so as not to drink with the other players. His career did not take off from there, however, experiencing relegation and moving to Motherwell in 1993. This move saw him finish as runners up in 1994, which qualified the team for next season’s UEFA Cup, where they were eliminated by Borussia Dortmund.


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At the end of the 1996 season, he left the club as a free agent, with the Bosman ruling having come into effect one year prior. His agent arranged trials at PSV and Dortmund and the latter signed him on as a backup to Paulo Sousa. His performances on the wing were so good during his first season that he kept Sousa out of the side, but weren’t good enough to help BVB catch up to Bayern.


Similar to this current season, Dortmund had a disappointing domestic campaign but shone in the Champions League. After finishing runners-up to Atletico Madrid in their group stage BVB knocked out Auxerre and defeated Manchester United in the semi-final, with Lambert shining in both legs. Still unfancied by many, Borussia faced the monumental task of defeating the previous years’ winners Juventus in the final.


Lambert was tasked with keeping Zinedine Zidane quiet and practically man-marked him out of the game, also setting up Borussia’s first goal by Karl-Heinz Riedle. Riedle scored one more time before Del Piero pulled one back for the Italians until in the 71st minute Lars Ricken sealed the win for the Germans. Lambert thus became the first British player to win the European Cup or Champions League with a foreign team, earning the man of the match award for the final.


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Just a few months after the final Lambert decided to return home to Scotland with Celtic. In his time on the green side of Glasgow, he won four Scottish champions medals, two Scottish Cups, two League Cups and lost the 2003 UEFA Cup Final to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. His time in management can be likened to a mountain, which is very fitting since he is a native of the most mountainous country in the British Isles.


He started out in the English lower leagues during the mid-2000s with Wycombe, Colchester and Norwich, moved on to Premier League management with Aston Villa and finally returned to the lower leagues with Blackburn, Wolves and Stoke. His last job was at Ipswich Town, which he left in 2020.


Paul Lambert’s win in 1997 basically opened the floodgates for British players to succeed in the Champions League. From 2000 to 2002 England had a Champions League winner despite no English clubs playing a final in this time. Steve McManaman’s wins in 2000 and 2002 embrace Owen Hargreaves’s victory in 2001 in a sort of unholy Steve McSandwich so we will start with him.


Macca, as he is affectionately known grew up as an Everton fan but rejected a contract with the team in favour of improved terms offered by Liverpool at the advice of his father, He made his debut at 18 and in his 9 years at Anfield he went from one of the most promising young wingers in the league alongside Ryan Giggs to one of the few domestic players to be viewed as a superstar alongside foreign players like Cantona to finally one of the best players in his position in Europe.


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Sadly for the Reds, the team’s performances could not keep up with his talent and ambition, only winning one FA Cup and one League Cup in his time there. By the late 90s, it was becoming clear that he had outgrown Liverpool and possibly even the Premier League. He almost always picked up the Man of the Match award at the end of games and opposition teams had to employ one or even two players to man-mark him in order to keep him somewhat contained.


A move to a bigger club seemed inevitable and it had to be a foreign team as the only real upgrade on the domestic stage would have been Manchester United. During 1997, McManaman was entering the final two years of his Liverpool contract and was reluctant to extend. In order not to lose him on a free Liverpool accepted a £12 million bid from Barcelona which turned into one of the biggest transfer sagas of English football up until that point.


The bid turned out to actually be a bit of a ruse from Barcelona, who were already pursuing Rivaldo at the same time and in the end McManaman remained at Liverpool. In 1998 Barcelona came in again for him alongside Juventus but both bids were rejected and he finally signed a pre-contract with Real Madrid in January 1999.


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Despite the odds being stacked against him, having recently lost his mother, moving from his boyhood club to a completely different country and to a club mired in financial issues and scandals, McManaman rallied his performances under Vicente del Bosque to reach the 2000 Champions League Final against Valencia. He scored the second of Real’s three goals and became the first English player to win the competition with a foreign team.


Two years later with the Galacticos project fully underway McManaman saw his game time decrease gradually but still managed to score in Real’s semi-final win against Barcelona. In the 2002 Final, he came on in the second half to see the game out with Real already 2-1 up against Bayer Leverkusen. At the end of the 2003 season, compatriot David Beckham’s signing marked the end of McManaman’s Real career and he moved back to England with Manchester City under Kevin Keegan’s tutelage.


A strong campaign in 2004 was followed by an injury-ridden 2005 season, at the end of which he hung up his boots. Despite stating that he would love to go into management McManaman has taken the pundit/media personality route and has been involved in football media ever since his retirement. Similarly, to McManaman, Hargreaves has also been working as a pundit for a while now, but long before that he was one of England’s brightest talents.


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Born in Canada, he moved to Germany to sign with Bayern at 16 and just four years later he was starting in midfield for the Bavarians in the Champions League Final against Valencia. The 2001 final was a battle between two goalkeepers namely Santiago Canizares and Oliver Kahn, as all of the goals came from the spot. Valencia opened the scoring in the third minute through a penalty, before Canizares saved Mehmet Scholl’s penalty only a few minutes later.


Just after halftime, Bayern earned another spot kick and Stefan Effenberg equalized. The game ended in a shootout and Hargreaves did not take part despite playing throughout the whole game as Bayern won 5-4. His performances in the subsequent season meant that he became a regular starter until various injuries started to occur more and more often in the following seasons.


In his time in Bavaria, he won four Bundesliga titles and three DFB Pokal titles and in 2007 he moved to Manchester United. In his first season, he played another 120 minutes of a Champions League final and once again won on penalties, this time against Chelsea. However, just like with Bayern his promising start soon gave way to fitness issues and injuries and four years later he moved to Manchester City who were flush with Abu Dhabi cash.


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He spent just one season on the blue side of Manchester, retiring at the end of their title-winning campaign, having not qualified to receive a winners medal. After his retirement, he stated that whilst at United, his injury issues were worsened by the club doctors trying out experimental treatments on him, a claim that has been disputed by Sir Alex Ferguson.


And now we finally come to my last inclusion, of course disregarding Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho and possibly Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, who haven’t played their final yet. As you probably could have guessed it is none other than the 16th-placed player at the February 2023 edition of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament, Gareth Bale.


Coming through Southampton’s excellent academy, Bale made his debut at just 16, where he played for just one year before moving to Spurs in 2007. Despite struggling with injuries early on in his Spurs career he bounced back to become one of Spurs’ all-time best players, eventually reaching his peak at the club dominating Inter Milan in the Europa League. His 2013 move to Real Madrid saw him reach a level that was tantalizingly close to his colleague Cristiano Ronaldo.


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Despite all the – Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order – memes many people and many Real Madrid fans have quickly forgotten just how instrumental he was for the club during their most dominant era. In 2014 he played the full 120 minutes scoring the goal that put Real ahead, in 2016 he played another 120 minutes, scoring his spot kick before making substitute appearances in 2017 and 2018 winning the game for Real in the latter with a double.


The only final he completely missed out on was the 2022 one, spending the full 90 minutes on the bench. After receiving increasingly horrific abuse from one of the most spoiled and toxic fanbases and being cast aside by a club with a horrific record of thanking their legends, he moved back to Tottenham on loan.


Despite his best days being firmly behind him he managed eleven goals in 20 appearances before spending a year in the US with Los Angeles FC and retired following the 2022 World Cup. Nowadays he is free to indulge in his passion for golf and is in firm contention for the title of not only the best Welsh player of all time but the best British one as well.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Peter Robinson – EMPICS / PA Images