Jeff Schlupp (Leicester)
14 league starts in 2015/16
Of course, any of Leicester City’s class of 2015/16 could have made this list. Danny Simpson’s own close family and friends didn’t expect Danny Simpson to start 30 matches for a Premier League title-winning team. The joy to be found in that Foxes team was the sheer shock of their astounding success.
But Leicester’s success was founded upon a regular starting XI, and a lack of injuries and absentees. Nine different players played 35 or more of Leicester’s 38 league games, leaving little room for change. Most could rattle off the back five of Schmeichel, Simpson, Fuchs, Huth and Morgan very quickly. In midfield, N’Golo Kante, Danny Drinkwater, Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez were automatic picks, while up front, Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy played 72 of a possible 76 league games between them.
Which makes it all the more odd that Schlupp managed to start 14 league games. He was never a regular pick, but his versatility made him Claudio Ranieri’s go-to guy whenever he was forced to change up. He played at left-back and on the left wing, collecting more yellow cards than goals and assists combined, but doing plenty enough to get his medal – including winning a very late penalty against West Ham to help get Leicester a big point in the run-in.
Oleg Luzhny (Arsenal)
15 league starts in 2001/02
Unfairly grouped alongside Igor Stepanovs, Luzhny was never able to oust Lee Dixon at full-back but did stay at Arsenal for four seasons, made 110 appearances in all competitions and even captained the club (albeit in the League Cup). Arsene Wenger had been impressed with the defender when facing Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League, and complimented Luzhny for his professionalism in fighting for a place in the team.
Still, it’s surprising to realise that the Ukrainian played 18 league games in Arsenal’s waltz to the title in 2001/02. With Dixon starting only 19 matches in all competitions and three in the league (he and Tony Adams would retire at the end of the season), Luzhny regularly filled in as cover on the right and centrally. He started 13 league games between Christmas and the beginning of April; Arsenal didn’t lose one.
Tom Cleverley (Manchester United)
18 league starts in 2012/13
A man who famously declared his ambition to be “Xavi and Iniesta” never got close to those heights, but there was certainly plenty of chatter about Cleverley’s potential when he first broke into Manchester United’s side. In December 2011, Alex Ferguson declared that his youngster could be “the best midfielder in Britain”. By 2012/13, Cleverley was being handed regular starts in a title-winning midfield.
With United in transition yet still able to wrestle the title back from Manchester City, Cleverley suddenly became key. In that season he started more or as many league matches as Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs, Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Shinji Kagawa. Great times.
Jesper Blomqvist (Manchester United)
20 league starts in 1998/99
The mind plays tricks on you, and time only helps it in that task. To most of us of a certain age, there are certain pillars of Manchester United’s treble-winning side who’d been cultivated and cherished out of the famous youth team: Beckham, Scholes, Butt, Neville P, Neville G and Giggs.
So here’s the thing. Of that group, only Beckham, Scholes, Butt and Gary Neville started more league games than Blomqvist, and Scholes and Butt only started four and two more games respectively. The Swedish winger was bought as Giggs’s reserve but given more games than anyone expected due to injuries. Blomqvist only drifted so quickly from our radars because he missed the entirety of the following two seasons with a horrible knee injury. Still, at least he found his Champions League medal having initially lost it in Barcelona.
Tiago Mendes (Chelsea)
21 league starts in 2004/05
The summer of 2004 featured a Portuguese invasion into west London. Jose Mourinho arrived as Chelsea manager, and brought with him Rui Faria, Silvino Louro and an unknown opposition scout by the name of Andre Villas-Boas. On the pitch, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira followed their manager from Porto. Arjen Robben, Mateja Kezman, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba were imported from France and Netherlands.
But so too did a midfielder who would start more league games than Drogba, Robben and Kezman, and play more games in all competitions (51) than all but three Chelsea players – Frank Lampard, John Terry and Eidur Gudjohnsen.
Tiago became a forgotten player in Chelsea’s short-termist wet dream under Roman Abramovich (he joined at the age of 23 and left after a single season), but he really was bloody marvellous during that title-winning campaign and was moved out of the team by Chelsea’s own ambition and Michael Essien. There can be few players who slip easier under the radar yet have won titles in three different major European leagues, played in two Champions League finals and a European Championship final.
Mark Bosnich (Manchester United)
23 league starts in 1999/00
If you’re anything like FFT, you’ll find a quiet half hour to play some quizzes on Sporcle and fall deep into a world of nostalgia. That bliss is only ruined by the blank spaces on the page where a footballer’s name should be. You know it. You know you know it. But you don’t know it.
Bosnich is one of those names. The Australian goalkeeper was most famous for being ruddy good at Aston Villa and then making a Nazi salute at Tottenham supporters, an act that really should have got him sacked by the club. But in 1999 he rejoined Manchester United as the club underwent a very weird goalkeeping hinterland following the departure of Peter Schmeichel.
Massimo Taibi infamously started four league matches and Raymond van der Gouw managed 11, but it was Bosnich’s 23 starts that made him a quasi-default No.1 at the biggest and best club in the land. Then they signed Fabian Barthez and quickly tried to forget the whole thing.
Asier del Horno (Chelsea)
25 league starts in 2005/06
Having splurged ahead of Jose Mourinho’s first season, Chelsea were a little quieter in 2005. Essien came to replace Tiago, and Shaun Wright-Phillips was the big-money move from Manchester City, but the only other major permanent signing was a left-back that nobody really believed Chelsea wanted.
With Mourinho unconvinced by Wayne Bridge, he instructed Chelsea to make a move for Ashley Cole. But after Cole, Chelsea and Mourinho received fines for pushing the move through, the club quickly retreated and Cole signed a new one-year deal at Arsenal. Enter Del Horno, who made 25 league starts and kept Cole’s place warm before leaving for Valencia.
Martin Demichelis (Manchester City)
27 league starts in 2013/14
I have played more than 50 times for my country. I have won seven league titles and nine other domestic trophies. I have started in a World Cup final, a Champions League final and a Copa America final. I have a Premier League winner’s medal, and started 27 league games in that season. I played in the Champions League in 11 of 12 seasons until 2016/17.
I am Martin Demichelis, and I am a great brainteaser for that person sitting next to you at work.
Victor Moses (Chelsea)
29 league starts in 2016/17
Surely the most extraordinarily crucial role in any Premier League title triumph. Moses joined Chelsea in August 2012 and started 12 league games in his first season. But by the start of 2016/17, the winger had gone over three years without playing a league minute for the club.
But after Chelsea had been beaten 2-0 at Arsenal in September 2016, causing Antonio Conte’s critics to sharpen their knives, the Italian switched Chelsea to a 3-4-3 formation and inspired a run of form that took them to the title. Without a natural right-wing-back (Marcos Alonso was perfect on the left), Conte brought Moses in from the cold and turned him into a superb fit for an unnatural role. Six months after Conte was sacked, Moses was sent to Fenerbahce on an 18-month loan, having played just 26 league minutes this season.
Mark Atkins (Blackburn)
30 league starts in 1994/95
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Poor Mark Atkins. If asked to name the nine players who started 30 or more league games for Blackburn Rovers in 1994/95, you might rattle through Tim Flowers, Colin Hendry, Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, Henning Berg, Stuart Ripley, Tim Sherwood and Graeme Le Saux. And then you’d stop.
Your first wrong guess might be Jason Wilcox, who only started 27 games. Your second might well be David Batty, because the image of Batty and Le Saux fighting each other in the Champions League became the abiding one of Blackburn’s immediate slump. But Batty only actually played five times in 1994/95 due to a foot injury.
Step forward Mark Atkins, almost entirely overlooked but a crucial part of that title-winning side, who joined Blackburn in the second tier and was with them all the way to title lift. Atkins played 34 times in the league, including 30 starts, and scored six times. He was promptly bundled off to Wolves safe in the knowledge that Batty was about to take his place.