Darron Gibson (left) with Everton teammates Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar
As the 2012-13 English Premier League season gets closer to commencement, there will be players looking to prove themselves far more than others.
Although the term “underrated” has been used fairly loosely in football, there is no doubt that various clubs throughout England have their fair share of diamond players who either get little support from management or fail to be recognized by the media for their important on-field contributions.
Now, the 20 underrated players that comprise this list are neither the most overlooked at their clubs nor are they in the class of the league’s best footballers. Instead, they are in that unique category where fan perceptions, club backing and media stipulation converge.
Some may be taken aback by those footballers who appear in this ranking. However, consideration had to be given to each EPL club. If not, clubs with lesser-known players such as Norwich City and Swansea City, who exceeded all expectations last season, might populate the entire list.
In order to avoid those problems, this list contains arguably the most underrated players at each of the 20 clubs in the top flight.
So, what do you think?
Emmerson Boyce is one of the older players on the list. Also, he is probably the one who fans will most fail to recognize.
The 32-year-old Barbados international is one of the less flashy players of a plucky Wigan Athletic that defies critics every year by staying in the Premier League.
Wigan tends to gain plaudits for their classy, typically foreign passing style, which is made possible due to quality footballers such as Jordi Gómez, Victor Moses and Franco di Santo.
However, despite his lack of flashiness, supporters surely would not fail to mention their aging, but versatile defender in the list of their most valuable assets since making it to the top flight.
Boyce has already played more than 150 times for Wigan since joining for £1 million from Crystal Palace in 2006 and this past season scored three goals—including a stunning volley against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
His important contribution to the club was recognized when he received the Outstanding Achievement award from the club this past May.
West Ham United have made a stunning return to the EPL following a strong performance in the second tier last season.
Heavy investment from the club's ownership was able to bring players of great experience and quality such as Kevin Nolan, Abdoulaye Faye and Guy Demel to London.
However, while many of those and other new arrivals faltered due to injures and under-performance, youth product Jack Collison flourished away from the spotlight.
The 23-year-old Wales international has already played almost 80 times for the club and is a hugely influential player in midfield when he is fully fit.
Although he suffered from an injury which kept him out for most of the 2010-11 season that saw West Ham relegated, his return in the Championship galvanized the club.
The stability and versatility that Collison provides should prove essential as the club integrates new signings and looks to secure top-flight football for at least the next two seasons.
Stoke City is not really known for having classy footballers.
Instead, they have the brutish force and strength of players like Ryan Shawcross, Rory Delap and Jonathan Walters largely to thank for keeping them in the Premier League for four consecutive seasons.
However, the typical mold at the club has slowly begun to shift. Players like Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington have come along throughout their top-flight journey and shown that elegance and quality are also essential for permanence in one of the world’s best leagues.
Marc Wilson, who joined the club in 2010 after several years fighting for a spot at recently relegated Portsmouth, has found a way to mix both industry and ability as he has cemented a place for himself at Stoke City.
Furthermore, the 24-year-old Ireland international has proven key to Stoke's success over the past two seasons with his versatility—playing as a centre-midfielder, right-back and left-back—making him a key player for Tony Pulis.
During the 2011-12 season, the manager said about Wilson,
Nobody mentions Marc at all, but I think he's been outstanding this year when you think he hasn't played full-back before. For me, he doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's more of a midfield player than a full-back, but he's done fantastically well in defence. I [think]...he's got so much quality when he's in possession. It's not just about his defending and that is a great asset for this football club.
Really, the Irishman is due for another big campaign this season.
Over the past two seasons, Sunderland has become as well known for spending big as they have for coming up drastically short of their potential.
While players like Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan come and go with the money, others like 22-year-old academy product Jack Colback provide supporters with hope that there might be light at the end of the tunnel for the club.
Colback, who matured greatly following two successful loan spells at Ipswich Town, has already been compared with Manchester United legend Paul Scholes—not only based on gingerly physical resemblances. He possesses the same slickness in midfield and passing ability as his predecessor.
Under Martin O'Neill, the 22-year-old has flourished and should continue to hold down a place in the side as new arrivals show up at the club.
In the coming years, Colback will be one to watch in terms of international development. He was already very unfortunate to miss out on a place in the Great Britain Olympic squad.
Scottish footballers tend to be recognized more easily for their tempers and directness than their creativity on the ball.
Nevertheless, West Bromwich Albion may have uncovered one of the more visionary Scottish midfielders of the past decade when they purchased the attack-minded Graham Dorrans for less than £150,000 from Livingston in 2008.
Since proving that he can make the grade in the EPL,the 25-year-old Dorrans has been recognized for his tremendous composure and consistency in midfield, which has helped to keep the West Midlands club above water and even led to a £4 million offer from West Ham being rejected in 2010.
Dorrans' transfer value has only grown since he secured a starting spot at West Brom. He will undoubtedly be a player to watch as the club seek to build on a 10th-place finish last season.
Alex Pearce is already renowned among Reading supporters and won the club’s Player of the Season award for their promotion campaign last season.
However, most outside of the championship know very little about the England-born defender who has already played for Scotland’s under-21 team and is eligible to represent Ireland as well as the nation of his birth in the future.
Pearce has been with Reading since 2001 and played with their academy and reserve sides until he made his league debut in 2008. Since then, the 23-year-old has tallied up more than 100 caps and even managed five goals in the last campaign as Reading stormed to promotion.
His resolute defending has been vital to Reading’s recent success. The club only allowed 41 goals with Pearce at centre-back in all of 2011-12.
In a division where some of the world’s best finishers ply their trade, Pearce’s defensive resilience and strength will be fundamental to the Royal’s hopes of keeping themselves in the top flight.
Jamie Mackie is one of the unsung heroes of Queen’s Park Rangers.
While new wealth and ownership brought the club the ability to sign established Premier League players such as Bobby Zamora and Shaun Wright-Phillips in the past year, the English-born Scotland international is an earlier purchase from Championship club Plymouth Argyle.
A multifaceted footballer, the 26-year old has played both in wide midfield as well as in the forward’s position at QPR, scoring 16 goals at 58 appearances for the club.
Mackie is well-respected by supporters for his toughness and his ability to disrupt opposing defenses, as he showed by scoring against Manchester City in the final game of last season.
Mark Hughes certainly has the money at his disposal to purchase players of a higher pedigree, but leaving one of the most popular figures at Loftus Road out of the squad in the 2012-13 could be dangerous for a club that may be trying to fly too close to the sun.
Surely, the most recognizable player at Norwich City during the 2011-12 season was Grant Holt. He led the team in scoring, captained them for much of the campaign and won their Player of the Year award for the third successive season.
Yet, there is another aging veteran who contributed immensely throughout the campaign.
Wes Hoolahan, the 30-year-old attacking midfielder who managed four goals and seven assists in his first top-flight season, stands only 5’6'', but his presence on the field for the club is absolutely massive.
The Irishman was purchased from Blackpool for a paltry fee in 2008 and has since earned 143 appearances, playing a key part in their promotion campaign and providing important assists for Holt when playing in the hole behind the striker.
In March, Hoolahan was inducted into the Norwich City Hall of Fame. A footballer of his quality will be fundamental as the Canaries look to hit the ground running under new manager Chris Hughton.
Jonás Gutiérrez is a fascinating player. Not always the most talented, but certainly fascinating.
For an Argentine who was brought up in the fascinating style of Vélez Sársfield, where he was a part of the academy and remained until Mallorca signed him in 2005, the 29-year-old is a certain contradiction.
Gutiérrez, who is famous for his Spider-man mask goal celebration, is not remotely skillful on the ball and lacks much of the agility and trickiness of fellow Argentina wingers Ángel di María and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Nevertheless, he earned the praise of world’s greatest player Lionel Messi, who labeled him in 2010 as one of the best footballers in the Premier League.
The man affectionately known as “el galgo” (which literally translates to the greyhound) can run for ages and is astonishingly quick. He was even featured as a right-back under Diego Maradona at the 2010 World Cup—although he has not been capped for Argentina since their quarterfinal loss to Germany.
In many ways, he is exactly what English supporters love to see on the pitch and has rightly been awarded hero status by many of those at Newcastle. Gutiérrez never gives up on the play and bravely chases down any ball in his vicinity.
So, while he may not be the easiest on the eye, the winger is a key complement to the fast-paced and entertaining football that helped the Magpies finish in fifth place last season.
Barry Bannan is another of the brilliant young Scottish midfielders to be plying his trade in the EPL.
The 22-year-old Scotland international and Celtic youth product made his competitive debut with Aston Villa in 2008 and since then has been shipped off three times on loan to lower-division clubs.
However, Bannan has already been hailed as one of the most skillful and visionary players to come out of the club in years and has been compared to the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Paul Scholes by both former manager Gérard Houllier and Scotland captain Darren Fletcher. The Manchester United midfielder stated, "Barry is in the mould of the best midfielders in the world,” and even Blackpool coach Ian Holloway hailed him as “a beautiful footballer.”
Standing only 5’7’’, Bannan did struggle for a place under Martin O’Neill due to his size, but may be Villa’s best hope for a return to the top 10 of the EPL under Paul Lambert, who surely could utilize the Scotsman’s tremendous passing ability to revitalize a squad depleted of confidence under anti-football tactician Alex McLeish.
Regardless, on both the international and domestic fronts, Bannan will surely develop into a gem of a footballer to watch in the coming seasons.
Southampton is another of the promoted clubs looking to retain Premier League status for at least one more season.
One of the players who will be essential for the Saints if they are to finish above 18th place and attain EPL safety will be two-time Fan’s Player of the Season and 2011-12 Championship Player of the Year Rickie Lambert.
Lambert’s story is similar to Norwich City’s Grant Holt during last season, who was a prominent veteran in the lower leagues before proving he could make the step up to the top flight without any difficulty at all.
After signing for Southampton from Bristol Rovers for around £1 million fee in 2009, Lambert has valiantly led the charge and played a major role in two successive promotion campaigns, bagging 78 goals in three seasons with the club.
The 30-year-old striker is well-known in the lower leagues for his dominant physical style and tremendous aerial ability. Standing at 6’2" and fearless in front of goal, Lambert should prove another success story for EPL fans to marvel at throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
In the past three seasons, Manchester City has built a reputation as arguably the highest-spending club in Europe.
This transition has allowed City to purchase phenomenal and expensive talent such as Carlos Tevez, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure—to name only few of their high-earning stars.
Understandably, this has resulted in other lesser-known players in the club's roster receiving far less media attention and minutes on the field.
Pablo Zabaleta, who joined the club from Espanyol for around £6.45 million in 2008, is a relic of previous seasons when the club prioritized potential and hard work above big names and reputation.
Despite competition from players such as Micah Richards and Aleksander Kolarav, the 27-year-old Argentina international has consistently fought his way into the starting lineup and amassed more than 100 league appearances for the Manchester club.
City supporter's have taken to Zabaleta's relentless effort and his versatility, which has seen him play in the right- and left-back positions and in various areas of midfield throughout his four seasons on the blue half of Manchester.
While he may not score many goals or be as flashy a footballer as many of his teammates, the seasoned and tenacious international is unafraid of doing the dirty work that is necessary on the field and should continue to earn plaudits for his brilliant overlapping runs and terrific crossing ability.
Swansea City took the EPL by storm in the 2011-12 season as they unexpectedly finished 11th.
Much has been made of their aggressive passing style and much credit has been heaped on players such as Leon Britton and Joe Allen.
Nevertheless, Swansea supporters would be quick to point out the massive involvement of their 29-year-old Spanish defender Àngel Rangel in all of their recent successes.
The Spaniard joined the club in 2007 while they were still in League One and has been a key part to their two promotion campaigns. Racking up 187 appearances for the club in five seasons, Rangel is a clever defender and his tremendous assuredness at right-back for the club even had many calling for Wales to sign him up as an international player.
Although Rangel is getting older and has struggled with some injuries in the past, he will be fundamental to helping new Spanish signings Chico and Michu adjust to the club’s style. When used adroitly, he is as important as any other player for Swansea City.
Sandro is probably one of the most technically gifted defensive midfielders in the Premier League.
The 23-year-old Brazilian, who is currently at the Olympics with the national team, joined Tottenham Hotspur for around £8 million after three successful seasons at local giants Internacional. In his final year with the club, he played a fundamental role in securing the 2010 Copa Libertadores title.
Although Sandro has found consistent playing time hard to come by in a squad filled with central midfield talent, he has managed 42 appearances in two full seasons under Harry Redknapp and should find himself better utilized by the more attack-minded Andres Villas-Boas at the helm, especially with an aging Scott Parker continuing to battle an Achilles injury from the end of last season.
If Sandro is to win Olympic gold with Brazil this summer, he should come back further energized for a season in which Tottenham will seek a Champion’s League place after finishing fourth, but missing out following Chelsea’s continental success.
Fulham has slowly transitioned into one of the more entertaining clubs to watch in England.
With players of great ability like Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembélé and a terrific passing approach to the game, the Cottagers have managed to consistently fight for a place in the top half of the Premier League table and even made it to the 2010 Europa League Final.
Although not as skilled on the ball as many of his teammates, 31-year-old defender Brede Hangeland has played a significant role in that success.
The Norway captain has featured 159 times for Fulham since his arrival from Danish football in 2007 and is undoubtedly one of largest and most intimidating centre-backs in England.
Standing 6'6'', Hangeland possesses tremendous physical strength and his great aerial ability helped him to finish as the club's second-highest scorer in the 2010-11 season with six goals. Aside from those obvious qualities, he is incredibly comfortable on the ball for a player of his size and has great passing ability from defense.
At his age, the Norwegian may not be attracting many suitors, but he is held in high regard by the majority of Fulham supporters and has been remarkably significant for the club in both defense and attack throughout his five seasons in London.
Before there was the insane fervor around the young and talented Jack Wilshere, another vigorous midfielder was just starting to make his mark at Arsenal.
Aaron Ramsey, currently captaining the Welsh national team at only 21 years old, has been with the club since joining from Cardiff City for £5 million in 2008 and has managed 68 league appearances with the first team.
In 2010, he suffered a horrendous leg-break against Sunderland and was out of football for almost a year before he went on loan to Nottingham Forest in a bid to regain match fitness. After another short loan at Cardiff City, Ramsey made his return to Arsenal and finished the 2010-11 campaign with seven appearances.
The Welshman returned to sizzling form last season and alongside Mikel Arteta controlled the Arsenal midfield with his precise passing and clever movement.
While much of the news around the club will be the eventual departure of Robin van Persie and the looming return of Wilshere, Ramsey’s presence and continued development following his devastating injury will be just as important if the club are to make a push in Europe and stay among the league’s best.
Branislav Ivanović is the man with the strange name who surely does not get enough credit for his defensive significance to Chelsea.
The Serbian international signed onto the London billionaires from Lokomotiv Moscow for £9.7 million in 2008. After two initially difficult seasons, he made the PFA Team of the Year in 2008-09 and was nominated for Chelsea Player of the Year for the club's past two campaigns.
He is extremely versatile for a bulky player and has featured at both at centre-back and right-back for Chelsea. His contributions have been especially important to the extremely defensive strategies that have been employed under Roberto Di Matteo as the club unexpectedly won the 2012 Champions League Final.
While expensive and flashy players such as Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata have been in the limelight for various reasons, Ivanović has worked tirelessly in the background and found himself a starter at one of Europe's wealthiest clubs.
Perhaps, he is a throwback to a time when Chelsea could not afford to be flashy because they simply did not have the funds to buy the best players. And, with Di Matteo managing the club permanently for next season, the 28-year-old Serbian will prove hugely important if Chelsea is to defend their FA Cup and CL trophies.
No one could have ever predicted that a once largely unknown Ecuadorian might be forming himself into one of the best traditional wingers in England at possibly the Premier League's biggest club.
When Antonio Valencia left Wigan Athletic to join Manchester United for around £16 million in 2009, however, the player was already a seasoned Ecuadorian international and very much to thank for helping keep Wigan in the top flight for three successive seasons.
Although he has suffered from injuries in his career, Valencia has developed into a phenomenal crosser of the ball and rapidly adapted to the upper echelons of the game, turning in consistent performances in both Europe and domestically for his club.
Still only 26 years old, the winger has already featured more than 100 times for United in all competitions and was voted the Player's Player of the Year, Fan's Player of the Year and received the Goal of the Year award for his contributions during the 2011-12 season.
If he remains fit for this upcoming seasons, the departure of Ji-Sung Park should allow Valencia to fully cement his place as Manchester's most talented and devastating wide midfielder.
Liverpool may be the only club in Europe that undervalue the importance of Daniel Agger.
The 27-year-old Danish defender has already been linked with moves to wealthy clubs like Barcelona and Manchester City over the summer as he still fails to be assured of a spot in Liverpool's starting lineup.
Agger, who captains Denmark at international level, has often been overlooked for club favorite Jamie Carragher. Despite his remarkable utility and athleticism in defense, he has struggled for consistency due to injury and a succession of new managers joining the disappointing club in recent years.
If Agger is to leave Liverpool—especially healthy—it may provide a huge influx of money, but will surely leave a gaping hole in a frequently shifting back-line.
However, if he stays at the club, he could prove a vital tool under Brendan Rodgers and provide the foundation on which Liverpool can build if they are to secure Champions League competition for the first time in three seasons.
Darron Gibson is certainly one of the surprise packages of the last Premier League season.
But he has always been a footballer of massive potential.
The 24-year-old Ireland international developed under the tutelage of midfielders like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, and played for six seasons at Manchester United before moving for less than £1 million to a financially threadbare Everton in the winter.
Since arriving, the clever and confident central midfielder has formed a blossoming partnership with Marouane Fellaini. Everton supporters could not be more elated with Gibson’s contribution. He has brought security in midfield and provides both accurate long passes as well as a tremendous goal-threat to a sometimes lackluster midfield.
This season, however, he will face intense competition for a starting spot. Jack Rodwell, who was once touted as the next big thing to come out of Everton, will be looking to prove critics wrong and push injuries aside—only possible if he can oust the very popular Gibson from his spot.
Both players have suffered from lethargy at times. However, with the Irishman looking to highlight Giovani Trappatoni’s inexplicable misuse of the player at Euro 2012, Gibson could start with a boom as he prepares to meet former club Manchester United in the season’s opening game.