The first entrants to the ESPN Premier League Hall of Fame have been announced, and all are very deserving, we can agree. But who missed out, and has reason to be outraged at their exclusion? And who will be waved in just as soon as they hang up their boots?
These guys are legends, but missed out on the first class. Surely they’ll be included next time around.
You will sometimes hear from people — often those who didn’t watch him play — that Cantona wasn’t all that. His modest record in Europe, his relatively short time at the top of the game, his moderate goals record next to the likes of Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry: but Cantona was about so much more than that. In many ways his appeal can’t be quantified, like his influence on the “Class of ’92” or his astonishing charisma, but if you did want to quantify it, just look at the 1995-96 season, when he more or less won the Premier League on his own.
Keane never won a title on his own, but would Manchester United have lifted it seven times during his 13 years at Old Trafford without him? Absolutely not. Keane was the driving force behind United, both knitting together one of the Premier League’s greatest sides and contributing to it as an equal to the finest players of his generation. Because Keane could play: his passing is perhaps the most underrated single quality in Premier League history, and he scored goals when United really needed them.
And of course, the enduring rivalry of the Premier League’s first decade was between United and Arsenal, but more specifically Keane and Vieira. Just as Keane was the heart of United, Vieira pumped blood around an Arsenal side that won three titles in Arsene Wenger’s glory years. Signed on Wenger’s instructions from AC Milan’s bench, Vieira almost immediately took England by the scruff of the neck and dominated from the off.
You wonder what Arsenal might have become had Vieira and Cole stayed around for longer. Cole left the Gunners a year after Vieira departed, and by now it’s more or less common consensus that of England’s “golden generation,” Cole was the best player, pound for pound. The best left-back of his generation, a highlight of Cole’s career were the battles he had with Cristiano Ronaldo at international level, but they were reflective of his broader brilliance for Arsenal and Chelsea.
And speaking of brilliance for Chelsea, it still looks like a typo when you scan down the list of the Premier League’s top scorers, reach No. 5 and it’s a midfielder with 177 goals! Lampard’s genius was a combination of his instinctive, natural ability to time runs into the box to absolute perfection, and a ferocious work ethic. If he can take those qualities into his managerial career, he could become one of those rare players who replicate their achievements on the pitch, in the dugout.
The “Next Ones”
They are still active players, and therefore not eligible for the Hall of Fame, but it won’t be long before they are.
It’s the consistency of Aguero that remains astonishing. Many players would become club icons with one 30-goal season, but Aguero has five of them and was well on his way to a sixth when football was suspended. And yet there’s still a vague sense that he’s underrated, or at least slightly underappreciated. Perhaps he suffers slightly from that “brilliance fatigue” that caused his compatriot Lionel Messi to not even be in the top five in the Ballon d’Or voting a couple of years ago. Perhaps we’re all so used to his genius that we take it for granted.
Still, he’s been helped along the way by a brilliant teammate. Silva is arguably the most elegant player in the history of the Premier League, a pint-sized wonder who has spent a decade gently finding holes in opposition defences and ruthlessly puncturing them with neat passes and superb flicks. When City signed him and Yaya Toure in the early days of their big spending, it served as a sign that their new owners meant business.
Perhaps without those two, then Rooney would have even more Premier League winners’ medals, although five is plenty to be going on with. Rooney is playing out the latter years of his career in the Championship but his excellence shouldn’t be forgotten, and we must in particular remember what a force of nature he was in his younger years. It’s true, there has perhaps never been an elite player in the Premier League with such a significant gap between their best and their worst, but when that best is as good as Rooney’s was, you can overlook the dips.
You could arguably say the same about Hazard. His inconsistency, combined with an apparent contentment with his lot at Chelsea, was probably the reason he didn’t move to Real Madrid until last summer, but his brilliance is the reason they have pursued him for all that time. Hazard is one of those players who was capable of beating any team pretty much on his own, if he fancied it, slicing and slaloming through defences with a relatively low centre of gravity and astonishing close control. He is a player who can do more or less what he wants, when he wants, and those are the players who are the most thrilling to watch.
When Liverpool‘s first Premier League title in 30 years is eventually confirmed, there might be players who have made greater contributions this season, but the chances are they wouldn’t be there, or at least wouldn’t have such a platform on which to build, without Salah. The Egyptian’s first season at Anfield, when he contributed an almost cartoonish 44 goals, took Liverpool from promising to genuine contenders, and so far he has driven them to two Champions League finals and, we presume, at some point the domestic title too.