The Premier League Hall of Fame is not working. This is how to fix it

Another round of inductees went into the Premier League Hall of Fame on Monday, but it barely touched the edges of the narrative around the league.

John Terry, Ashley Cole and Andrew Cole were the newest additions to the group of 19 players who have been inducted so far. In 2023, two managers joined the club for the first time, with Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson inducted. Eight new players were inducted each year in both 2021 and 2022. In 2023, it dropped to three, with the same number joining this year.

But unlike other sports leagues around the world, there is not the same level of interest in the Premier League Hall of Fame. Why?

Here, The Athletic’s Daniel Taylor, Matt Slater, Carl Anka, Charlie Eccleshare and Ajay Rose discuss the Hall of Fame as it is, the problems with it and how to fix it going forward.

How do you feel about the current Premier League Hall of Fame?

Taylor: I don’t want to come across as a spoilsport. I know this is going to sound a bit grumpy and I am aware there are more important things to worry about in this daft old sport, but this Hall of Fame just strikes me as just another self-congratulatory, back-slapping, look-at-us piece of PR from the Premier League while simultaneously trying (again) to create the impression that football didn’t exist until its creation in 1992. Well, it did. And there has been a Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum to celebrate that fact since 2002, with 190 players inducted. So it’s difficult not to be cynical. Clearly, one wasn’t good enough for the relevant people at Premier League HQ, so now we have two and grumps like me want to know: is it really necessary?

Cech being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2023 (Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

Slater: Before this week, when I was lucky enough to be invited to the 2024 ceremony, I felt absolutely nothing about the Premier League Hall of Fame. If I’m honest, I was only even aware there was one because of the annual story about Ryan Giggs not being in it. For those not across that tale, the 13-time Premier League champion probably should have been inductee number one when the virtual hall opened in 2021, but Giggs has never even made the shortlist because of his 2020 arrest for alleged domestic abuse. He was eventually found not guilty of those charges in 2023, but the Manchester United star is clearly still tarnished by the matter. Getting back to the point, though, the fact Giggs was being “snubbed” was my only real knowledge of the Hall of Fame suggests it had not really cut through. I realise that it’s possible I just had not been paying attention, but I am on the Premier League’s mailing list. However, having actually attended this year’s ceremony and seen how much it means to the inductees and their families, I feel… something, for sure. It definitely meant something to Andy Cole, Ashley Cole and John Terry, the three newest members of a very select 24-strong pantheon.

Eccleshare: Pretty indifferent. My issue I suppose is what purpose the Hall of Fame really serves. The inductees so far are all huge stars, all of whom are either Premier League or Champions League winners (or both). How much does it really say to recognise them in this way?

Anka: I don’t feel anything. That’s the problem. Here is an opportunity to celebrate some of the best and brightest players and stars of the most monied league in European football… and all they’ve managed so far is a few graphics on social media and some black tie events in London. Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic kibboshed the initial plan for the Hall of Fame’s beginnings (it was announced in 2020 and inductions began in 2021), but it has yet to do anything to justify its existence. It has done little to preserve the physical football history of the last 30 years. It has no physical space for fans to go to and enjoy on a day out. What’s worse is it hasn’t succeeded in the secret mission Hall of Fames in American sports leagues does — generate conversation about “the good old days” during the off-season or quieter moments.

It was telling that one of the more memorable instances of someone being called a Premier League Hall of Famer came in Todd Boehly’s statement after Frank Lampard was appointed interim manager for Chelsea in April 2023. I’m sure some subscribers will be glad the Hall of Fame hasn’t taken off and furthered “the Americanisation of Our League”, but a Hall of Fame done right could be a really good thing and I genuinely believe it would not take too much time/money/forward thinking to fix it.

Rose: Indifferent. I like the idea of giving recognition to legendary players. But at the same time, if one of my favourite players does not get inducted, it will not bother me too much. In other sports, like the NFL and NBA, a player’s induction into the Hall of Fame is sometimes used as a counterpoint to the number of accolades that player has won. We are not there yet with the Premier League.

What have they done right and what’s missing?

Taylor: They must have done something right because Sir Alex Ferguson thought it was more important to attend the launch in London than be at Old Trafford for the unveiling of the statue commemorating Jimmy Murphy, former assistant to Sir Matt Busby and one of the most important people in Manchester United’s history. Hmm. Nice one, Fergie. Otherwise, it’s just been a series of press releases, some bland interviews on Sky and not much else.

Anka: One reason why other sporting Hall of Fames have worked so well through the years is because they largely follow a simple adage: “Give people their flowers while they can still smell them.” The order in which players are being admitted to the Premier League Hall of Fame needs a lot of work, but they have more or less grasped the idea that it’s nice to remind people how much they are loved and how many lives they have touched.

Rooney being inducted into the Hall of Fame (Tom Dulat/Getty Images for eSC)

Eccleshare: The selections are fine and stand up to scrutiny. There is another way to make it more interesting and worthwhile. This would be to add players because of Premier League achievements beyond just being a really good player. Are there players with amazing longevity that could be recognised? Or have thrown themselves into community work? Or helped in keeping a particular team up?

Rose: The Premier League created a Hall of Fame, so that is a positive, but it still does not feel like a ‘thing’ yet. There have been 19 players inducted since it launched three years ago in 2021. Have you ever used the fact that [player x] is a Premier League Hall of Famer in a debate? Do you even know which players have been inducted? I am guessing the answer is no. That is what is missing.

Slater: Now that it has grabbed my attention, I can see that they have got plenty of things right. They have clear eligibility criteria based on Premier League appearances and personal/team achievements. The first two eight-strong lists of inductees, in 2021 and 2022, ticked the most obvious boxes from the league’s first two decades, and then the smaller three-strong player lists in the last two years have filled in the most glaring gaps. Last year, they enrolled two managers who did more than most to create the storylines that made the Premier League the most popular domestic football league on the planet, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Linking eligibility to the league’s previous attempts at myth-making, the two teams of the decade the league announced in 2003 and 2012, was also a smart move, as was the connection with the league’s annual awards for the best goalkeeper, manager, player and so on. So, the choices they have made, and the basis of those choices, all make sense. As does the way those choices have been made, with a mix of selection by an expert panel and through a public vote. And yet it passed me, and I suspect many others, by until this week. What’s missing would appear to be obvious, which leads me to the next question….

Would a physical Hall of Fame change anything?

Slater: Yes! While the induction ceremony clearly provided another amazing memory for the players involved, and the engraved medallion will look nice on the mantelpiece or wall, there is nothing for the rest of us to admire or experience. Of course, there is no point building a fancy home for your hall of fame if you have very little to put in it.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, by far the best of these sporting Valhallas, did not become the special place it is overnight. Opened in 1939, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is an archive, monument and celebration of the sport wrapped up in one. It has almost 350 members now and is visited by more than a quarter of a million people a year.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is another much-visited (and argued about) institution. The National Football Museum in Manchester seems like the obvious temporary home for the Premier League Hall of Fame until it has enough inductees, exhibits and cultural heft to justify its own building. But until it has a permanent presence, it seems doomed to be a two-day story: the first about Giggs, the second about something funny that was said at the induction ceremony.

Anka: One million per cent yes. A physical Hall of Fame would help preserve the living memory of the league far better than any YouTube playlist. If you are going to build one… DO NOT put it in London. There’s so much of the league’s history that lies in cities outside the capital that another London tourism site would nullify some of the interest. A physical Hall of Fame should work as a store of some of the collective memory from the previous 30 years of sport. Get official match balls from every league season in there. Get a home kit from every league winner across the seasons. If someone wins a Golden Boot, get their boots in there, too. Also — crucially — when new players are admitted into the Hall of Fame… make sure you hold the induction ceremony in the city in which they are best known. Alan Shearer was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 2021 in a ceremony held in London. Imagine how much better things would have been if an event was held in Newcastle where members of the public could buy tickets.

The 2022 Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Taylor: To go back to my earlier point, English football already had a Hall of Fame, with the opportunity to nominate players and then celebratory dinners when the relevant people were inducted. If you visit the museum in Manchester city centre, you will find plenty of references to those players and a whole lot more. It’s free and recommended and it covers more than just the past 32 years. Early days, yes, but the Premier League Hall of Fame doesn’t really involve fans. There’s nothing to touch people’s hearts. It’s all a bit cold and functionary. So I don’t think the average person on the street really feels, well, anything.

Eccleshare: Possibly. And making it feel like more of a regular event would also make a huge difference. Perhaps they could hook it to an annual Premier League moment — something like the opening weekend of the season.

Rose: It has the potential to. In the NFL, there is a Hall of Fame museum in Canton, Ohio. Those inducted are invited to Canton where they receive a bust, an opportunity to deliver a speech and they receive a gold jacket. Wearing a gold jacket as an NFL player is the ultimate mark of respect. The induction ceremony takes place during Super Bowl week and the inductees are often discussed at length beforehand. It is an actual moment and it all traces back to becoming part of the exclusive club that is the Hall of Fame in Canton. If the Premier League decide to create a random museum without much of a plan about what that physical space should represent, however, I am not sure what impact that will have in the long run.

Can the Premier League learn anything from other sports?

Eccleshare: In the other main sport I follow, tennis, the Hall of Fame has similarly struggled to have much cut-through (in the UK at least). Again, I think this is because the players that are inducted are almost always Grand Slam winners anyway, and that, rather than being part of a Hall of Fame, is what matters to them. My American colleagues may feel differently.

Rose: As an example, some people say the induction criteria for the WWE Hall of Fame is too lenient. Critics of that last sentence will say wrestling is not a proper sport and that I should grow up. To that I would say, fair enough, but the point still stands — leniency is a problem. The same has been said of the NBA Hall of Fame, too. The NFL has a rule that states a player can only become part of the Hall of Fame five years after they have retired. It would look a bit odd if James Milner retired next year and was inducted the year after. A cooling-off period builds intrigue and the debate around who deserves to be in and who does not creates interest among fans.

Anka: Here’s another simple adage the Premier League Hall of Fame needs: “Don’t wait until your best man speech before you tell your mate you love him.” The NBA Hall of Fame is one of the greatest examples of the power of male friendship we have in the English language. It takes in 75-plus years of basketball history and sees some of the greatest players of all time go up on stage and tell you why they think someone else is worthy of being admitted to the Hall of Fame. The NBA Hall of Fame also understands another thing about how elite-level athletes socialise; it’s great when your team-mates tell the world how much they love you, but it’s even better when a former adversary tells the world how annoying and challenging you were to play against.

If John Terry is being admitted to the Hall of Fame, have the ceremony occur in his patch of west London. Make sure Jose Mourinho rocks up in person to give a better version of the speech he gave down his smartphone. But also, have an array of strikers explain how hard it was playing against him. There’s a stereotype that Premier League players aren’t the most articulate, but get these men talking about their glory days and who they met in the game’s biggest moments.

The 2023 Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Slater: Yes. Go to Cooperstown. It’s amazing.

Taylor: It’s pretty clear that being a Hall of Famer is much more of an accolade in U.S sports. So yes, the Premier League can look for tips about how to make its equivalent more attractive. I also like Carl’s idea about making sure the inductions are proper events in the cities where the relevant people are celebrated the most. It is all very London-centric at the moment.

Is there an obvious inductee you think is missing?

Taylor: It feels a bit silly leaving out Giggs when, whatever you may think of him, he’s a 13-time Premier League winner and the most decorated player in the history of English football. Yes, we know all the unpleasantness around him, but it has never been specified by the Premier League that good behaviour is mandatory and, if it is, their selections so far have included a former drink-driver and someone who was banned for racially abusing an opponent. So it is easy to be confused.

Slater: Apart from Giggs, who looks destined to be the Premier League Hall of Fame’s Pete Rose or Barry Bonds, the clear answer here, if you look at the criteria, is… Gary Neville. He has also been on the shortlist for the last three years. He may not have been the most cultured of players, but he made 400 Premier League appearances, won eight league titles, was picked by his peers for the team of the year five times and featured in the league’s team of the decade selections in 2003 and 2012. It is probably his turn next. And there are several very obvious candidates — Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo, for example — who will waltz in as soon as they retire.

Eccleshare: Gareth Barry or James Milner as the leading and second-leading appearance makers probably deserve a place in the ‘lifetime achievement’ sort of way. David James, perhaps, as the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets after the already-inducted Petr Cech.

Rose: If I had to pick someone, I would say Jose Mourinho. There is a backlog of obvious candidates to induct given it only launched in 2021, so the more controversial picks will not start to arrive for some time if they induct people at a rate of three per year.

Anka: Gareth Barry.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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