The NFL has one. NASA and American astronauts have one, prominently located at the Kennedy Space Center. There’s one for country music, one for Alabama jazz and one for video games. Rock and Roll has one. There are ones celebrating Italian soccer, Australian cricket and Canadian baseball. You can find them in golf, basketball, tennis, rugby league, lacrosse and even pro wrestling. Even mascots have one (inaugural member: the Phillie Phanatic)!
Now, after 28 years of existence, the English Premier League is getting one, too.
We’re talking, of course, about a Hall of Fame, one of those venerable buildings devoted to excellence in a given field over an extended period of time. Glittering careers end in retirement with the potential — with a majority of votes from their peers — to enter a Hall of Fame. So we decided to preempt the official Premier League Hall of Fame, which was postponed from opening due to the coronavirus outbreak, by opening our own at ESPN.
What follows is the 2020 inaugural class, the first five players undoubtedly worthy of the honor, as selected by ESPN editors and writers.
There were only two criteria for inclusion in our Hall of Fame: the player must be retired from playing the sport, and he must be judged on his accomplishments in the Premier League. (Silly awards such as World Cup winners’ medals don’t matter here.) After our voters ranked their top 10 players of the Premier League era, we tallied the votes and enshrined the top five vote-getters for their overwhelming majority of support among our expert panel.
On Thursday, we’ll debate the most notable snubs and omissions, along with the players sure to be first-ballot entrants as soon as they hang up their boots, but for now, let’s celebrate the quintessential quintet who have defined the Premier League in its first three decades.
FW, Arsenal (1999-2007; 2012, loan)
— 258 games played: 175 goals, 74 assists
— Most Premier League goals in Arsenal history
— Scored eight Premier League hat tricks (T-fourth all time)
— Won the Premier League Golden Boot a record four times
— One of only two players to win the award three seasons in a row, from 2003 to ’06 (Shearer, 1994-97)
Titles won: 2x Premier League (2001-02, 2003-04), 2x FA Cup (2001-02, 2002-03)
Why he’s HoF-worthy: An icon for his goals as much as his style
The biggest reason Thierry Henry is one of the best, if not the best, Premier League players in history is that regardless of whether you support Arsenal, you will always remember where you were when he scored some of his most iconic goals for the Gunners.
The solo goal over 60 yards against Tottenham at Highbury? The flick and volley on the turn against Manchester United? The slalom against Liverpool? The genius backheel against Charlton? Those are unforgivable goals, and they have left their mark on the Premier League forever, just like “Titi” himself.
The French striker was not just a quick winger who arrived in England at the age of 22, with a World Cup winner’s medal already in his trophy cabinet. He also swiftly became a clinical striker, one of the best in the world, under longtime manager and mentor Arsene Wenger.
Henry always boasted an innate, incredible talent, and he developed it by working very hard from a very young age. He also had a footballing intelligence well above that of his peers. Henry understood everything about the game and about the opposition far more quickly than anyone else. He was demanding of his teammates and especially himself, rarely content with his performances, let alone those of his teams. There was always something that could have been better. With the Frenchman, there was no place for mediocrity. Scoring a world-class goal was no reason to smile — it was the job well done.
He was an inspiration (and still is) for generations of players because of his style. The Premier League had never seen a forward like him, with so much swagger, pace and efficiency — and also that effervescent personality. His legacy is immense, and if it worked so well for him in England, it’s because it felt like home to him from day one. — Julien Laurens
Henry arrived in the Premier League as a World Cup winner but one who’d flopped in Serie A with Juventus and was struggling to shrug off the “mercurial” tag usually applied to players who frustrate more than they flourish. Wenger soon ripped that off him, turning Henry into arguably the most lethal forward of his generation, one who could score from virtually anywhere and whose jet-heeled pace, particularly when scything toward goal from wide positions, was simply impossible to deal with.
Ever seen a striker opening up his body and side-footing a low shot around a goalkeeper? It is a time-honoured manoeuvre, but chances are it will remind you of Henry. Such was the way he turned simplicity into sheer brilliance. — Nick Ames
FW, Blackburn (1992-96), Newcastle United (1996-2006)
— 441 games played: 260 goals, 64 assists
— Most goals in Premier League history
— 11 Premier League hat tricks (second-most all time behind Sergio Aguero‘s 12)
Titles won: Premier League (1994-95)
Why he’s HoF-worthy: An old-school player who kept up with English soccer’s evolution
Let’s make this simple: Find a list of the players with the most top-flight goals in English history. Alan Shearer will be fifth. Now remove the three prewar guys, the fellas from the era of medicine balls and 5-4 scores. You’ll find that Shearer is second, behind only the incomparable Jimmy Greaves.
Shearer is also, along with Greaves and David Jack, one of only three players to score 100 or more goals with two different clubs. Only Wayne Rooney ranks in the top 25 among those who played after 2000, and he’s all the way down in 21st place, 75 goals behind. In the Premier League era, the 28-goal mark in a season has been reached just 13 times: Shearer did it on six occasions, Harry Kane has done it twice, and nobody else has managed it more than once.
Had he not missed two half-seasons in the prime of his career — once at 27, once at 30 — Shearer would unquestionably have passed the 300-goal mark. What’s more, he carried his teams on his back for most of his career, as evidenced by the fact that his clubs finished in the top six just seven times in his 19 seasons. In other words, he wasn’t just the flat-track bully who finished off chances on dominant teams; he had to scrap and fight for most of his opportunities.
The capsule review on Shearer is that of a classic English center-forward: powerful, physical and strong in the air. Undoubtedly, he had all the attributes of a prototypical No. 9.
You imagine Shearer rising above a defender to thump a header in the top corner or holding off a centerback, protecting the ball and knocking it into space before rifling it home and wheeling away, with his trademark arm-raised-in-air, open-palm celebration. That’s fine, but there was much more than that. His goal-scoring prowess wasn’t just down to physical gifts. He had an ability to read the game — possibly a legacy of a youth spent in midfield — and a technical ability on the ball that allowed him to connect cleanly almost every time.
There’s another reason imagining a first-ballot Premier League Hall of Fame without Shearer would be like imagining Wham! without George Michael. As English football became more defined by money and glamour than ever, as the gap between the mega-clubs and everybody else increased, Shearer put his money where his mouth was: He turned down a move to Manchester United for a chance to return to Newcastle, his hometown club and the team he supported as a boy.
It meant that his trophy cabinet would be that much emptier, but playing in front of his people, in his city, meant so much more. — Gab Marcotti
Don’t allow the mists of time to obscure the goal-scoring feats of Alan Shearer. The former Blackburn and Newcastle striker was the most prolific forward in the first decade of the Premier League, and his tally of 260 league goals remains the figure to beat, with second-placed Wayne Rooney way behind with 208.
Shearer had everything. He could score with either foot, from distance or close range, and he was one of the most outstanding headers of the ball of his generation. He was a leader, physically capable of battling any defender, and he still tops the all-time charts, despite missing almost two full seasons because of serious knee and ankle injuries. — Mark Ogden
MF, Manchester United (1990-2014)
— 632 games played: 109 goals, 162 assists
— Most assists in Premier League history
— Second-most appearances in Premier League history (Gareth Barry, 653)
— Most titles by a player in Premier League history (13)
Titles won: 13x Premier League, 4x FA Cup, 3x League Cup, 2x Champions League, 1x Intercontinental Cup, 1x FIFA Club World Cup
Why he’s HoF-worthy: A proven winner unparalleled in the modern English game
The archetypal, impossibly fast, graceful, athletic winger follows a pretty well-known career path. Shock the system when he first arrives, quickly climb to an incredible peak for a few seasons, and then steadily decline as the speed and athleticism fade away. It’s a recipe for spectacularity, not consistency — unless you’re Ryan Giggs. Why not both?
In his autobiography, “Managing My Life,” Manchester United’s iconic manager, Sir Alex Ferguson (1986-2013), writes about the first time he saw his new Welsh winger. “He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.” Five years later, that cocker spaniel was still only 18, but he was playing 3,446 minutes in the inaugural season of what was known at the time as the Premiership, scoring nine goals and assisting seven more. (There are only 3,420 available minutes in a Premier League season these days.) United won their first title in the first season, priming fans for what would soon become a year-after-year inevitability.
It took seven more seasons for Giggs to score that goal. You know the one: Arsenal up a man, and then a wayward pass from Patrick Vieira gets picked off behind midfield. As if to thank him for his gift, Giggs wanders infield just so he can juke Vieira out of his shorts before shifting back out wide and breezing and bullying past Martin Keown and Lee Dixon. In ecstasy after a brilliant finish, Giggs looks like your fit neighbor, the one who insists on doing yard work with his shirt off.
It’s ironic that Giggs’ most iconic moment came without his Manchester United top on. No United player has made more starts or appearances. Only Gareth Barry has played in more Premier League games. Giggs recorded 162 assists in the league; no one else is north of 111. Miraculously, the Welshman extended his career deep into his 30s by becoming a deep-lying midfielder and sometime fullback. He won four FA Cups, two Champions Leagues and 13 Premier League titles. United haven’t won the league without Sir Alex, but they haven’t won it without Ryan Giggs, either. — Ryan O’Hanlon
Twenty-four seasons of top-flight football tell their own story. But when you consider that for most of them, Giggs’ job was to pound up and down the wing at full pelt, you view it in an entirely different light. It takes technical ability and intelligence, the sort that make up for the ravages of time, as well as a single-minded ability to look after your own body, the literal tool of your trade. Giggs’ professionalism and loyalty to Manchester United yielded 25 major trophies and a permanent place in any United Best XI ever. — Gab Marcotti
MF, Manchester United (1993-2013)
— 499 games played: 107 goals, 55 assists
Titles won: 11x Premier League, 3x FA Cups, 2x League Cups, 2x Champions League
Why he’s HoF-worthy: Always superb despite never hogging the spotlight
Paul Scholes was nicknamed “SatNav” by his United teammates because of his unerring ability to deliver a pass with pinpoint accuracy. He could also score, with 155 goals to his name during an Old Trafford career that lasted almost 20 years. But it’s only since he retired at the end of the 2012-13 season, walking away from the club the same day as Ferguson, that the game has begun to truly appreciate his genius.
Scholes’ England career came to a premature halt in 2004, when at 29 he announced his international retirement because he had grown tired of being used out of position by manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. Despite his all-around ability, Scholes was the odd man out as Eriksson attempted to build a midfield around Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and his skills were lost to England as a result. It was a different story with United, however, where he ended his career having won 11 Premier League titles. But it’s worth remembering that he almost failed to make the grade at United as one of the famed “Class of ’92” alongside David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt.
Initially, Scholes’ height was a concern at Old Trafford, and he also had to overcome the debilitating effects of asthma during his late teens, which meant his route to the top at United wasn’t quite as straightforward as those of the likes of Giggs, Beckham and Butt. But once he broke through, Scholes’ passing ability, eye for goal and tenacity made him a mainstay in the United team. Check out his highlights package on YouTube, and you’ll see sensational goals and defence-splitting passes — perhaps the best was a lobbed through-ball to Wayne Rooney for a goal against AC Milan in the Champions League.
Scholes never won the big individual honours, but the praise of opponents such as Zinedine Zidane and Xavi tells you how highly he was regarded. — Mark Ogden
Scholes never should have been English. Spanish probably, French perhaps, but he was always an exception in England. He played with so much flair and technical talent that he was a UFO in English football. It didn’t make sense. He was almost too good to be true. He could see the game before anyone else, could see a pass before his own teammates and rarely lost the ball. If you had a strong and determined mind, then it gives you Scholes, one of the best midfielders England ever had. — Julien Laurens
MF, Liverpool (1998-2015)
— 504 games played: 120 goals, 92 assists
— Most Premier League assists by a Liverpool player
— Second-most Premier League appearances by a Liverpool player (Jamie Carragher, 508)
— Second-most Premier League goals by a Liverpool player (Robbie Fowler, 128)
Titles won: 2x FA Cup, 3x League Cup, 1x UEFA Champions League, 1x UEFA Cup
Why he’s HoF-worthy: A constant game-changer and irresistible midfield force
The tragedy of Steven Gerrard’s legacy is that he is far too often referred to in terms of things that did not — or could not — happen.
Why were he and Lampard not a partnership that powered England to world domination? Why did he have to slip at the most agonising moment in 2014 and send the first league title in 24 years spinning out of Liverpool’s grasp?
– Coronavirus cancellations, reactions across all sports
– I Was There: ESPN writers’ most memorable soccer moments
– Barnwell’s best Premier League transfers: 100-51 | 50-1
– Karlsen: Notable misses by soccer pro scouts
What-ifs such as those can cloud memories of a player’s career, but in Gerrard’s case, the mind-boggling individual displays still cut through the fog and define a footballer who, for his ability to take lost causes by the throat when all around him are failing, has few equivalents in the modern game. His influence on a fluctuating decade-and-a-half for Liverpool in the top flight was remarkable, with him hitting double figures for Premier League goals four times and being named in the PFA team of the year eight times.
Gerrard rejected Bayern Munich (among many others) in favour of dragging Liverpool back to Europe’s summit in the early 2010s. It would have been easy for him to seek a new challenge given that, in 2005, he’d summoned up Herculean reserves of strength to heave them that high. “That” second half in Istanbul, when Liverpool came back from 3-0 down against AC Milan to level 3-3 and win the Champions League on penalties, will never be forgotten, nor will Gerrard’s insatiable appetite to taste that feeling all over again with the club he adores and his capacity to transcend the limits of what is physically possible in order to do so.
The Champions League final heroics were one thing, but the improbable, last-minute 35-yarder a year later — when he was visibly exhausted and effectively moving on one leg — to save Liverpool from losing the FA Cup final to West Ham in Cardiff was perhaps the most eye-catching individual contribution of all. You might be tempted to reach for the not-quites when thinking of Gerrard, but he’ll always have the perfect comeback in more than one sense. — Nick Ames
Soccer is supposed to be a game of constraints: those parallel and perpendicular white lines, that tiny, metal goal frame, that annoying keeper in the way, the fact that no one but the man between the posts gets to use their hands, those 10 other players who keep blocking your path. More than for any other player of his era, Gerrard’s entire career was a battle against those restrictions, and more often than not, he came out on top. — Ryan O’Hanlon