David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Four names synonymous to that warm feeling EPL fans of yesteryear enjoyed at the anticipation of another Saturday afternoon of glorious entertainment.
Between them they have notched up 505 Premier League goals in 1,461 appearances. Beckham’s precision, Henry’s ‘va va voom’, Lampard’s prowess and Gerrard’s inspiration helped to build what is today considered the most exciting league in the world. And America continues to steal the dusk of their illustrious careers.
Money is the ultimate lure, but it is difficult to condemn a man who takes a golden handshake when his career ends before the age of 40 – not that these guys face any problems in future earning capacity. The idea of moving the family to a wonderful part the world and enjoying a not-so-challenging ‘new challenge’ is one most will understand.
For Beckham, Henry and Gerrard, their loyalty is admirable. It was made clear that they would not wear the colours of another English team out of respect to the clubs that mothered them. But what of grassroots football? The arrival of Gerrard at League Two Tranmere Rovers, for example, would teach a group of young English players an immeasurable amount about how one of the world’s greatest players operates. Giving back to the game is not just about setting up academies and pioneering in ‘undeveloped’ footballing countries. Understandably, nobody wants to become a target scalp upon entering the twilight of their career, but English lower leagues miss the influence and expertise of former greats.
In some respects it is admirable that a player does not want to rot on a bench somewhere as knees seize up and waistlines expand, but too often top-flight careers are cut short too early. Chelsea may find that out the hard way with Lampard looking ominous in sky blue.
Before heading to the States, Beckham and Henry left the Premiership for Spain, where a slower, more cultured form of the game is played. The former was never the quickest of footballers but his positional awareness and vision, accompanied by perhaps the greatest right foot in the sport and an incurable drive, helped Manchester United to six Premier League titles and one Champions League.
Henry led the ‘Invincibles’, the Arsenal team who went unbeaten in 2003/4, to a second Premier League crown in three seasons. His balletic strength and poise, from driving breaks to lob-wedge spot kicks made him one of the most magnificent players these shores have ever seen. Indeed, this is a man who arrived at Highbury claiming he did not know how to score goals and left as the Premiership’s fourth all-time goalscorer.
It is of little surprise that Frank Lampard is still a standout performer in a title-challenging team. His engine continues to allow him to execute actions based a sublime understanding and fluent reading of the game, box-to-box. As that deteriorates, he will control games from deep. Similarly, Gerrard retains the ability to do this, with a first touch that is always positive and a drive that is unrivalled. It is one of football’s greatest injustices that a Premier League title eluded him.
Chelsea and Liverpool may well rue allowing their most talented assets leave before the situation becomes untenable. Clubs may want to think about what ‘over-the-hill’ really means in an age where footballers look after themselves well and have all the resources available to prolong retirement.
Ever since Pele, aged 35, moved to New York Cosmos in 1975 and Los Angeles Aztecs signed a 30-year-old George Best in 1976, some of the world’s finest players have been moving to football’s promised land. Many a wealthy businessman has ploughed money into the emergence and growth of ‘soccer’ in a nation where sporting potential is enormous and the arrival of household names boosts exposure.
But these are four names that (despite Lampard’s late City flourish) will always belong to four of England’s biggest clubs, where they were nurtured into some of the greatest players the world has ever seen.
- Thierry Henry: 175 goals in 258 games for Arsenal
- Frank Lampard: 147 goals in 429 games for Chelsea + 5 goals in 15 games for Manchester City
- Steven Gerrard: 116 goals in 494 games for Liverpool
- David Beckham: 62 goals in 265 games for Manchester United