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In Praise Of England's Lost Midfield Great

Steven Gerrard. 748 appearances, 191 goals, two FA Cups, three League Cups, one UEFA Cup, one Champions League and one UEFA Super Cup. An icon in Liverpool.

Frank Lampard. 915 appearances, 274 goals, three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, one Europa League and one Champions League. An icon at Chelsea.

The debate over who of these titans stood the tallest will rage indefinitely. But greatness in sports is a slippery eel to pin down.

Personal preferences in style, personality and attitude are all subjective, whilst there are myriad factors which affect an individual’s capacity for greatness - teammates, managers, roles and responsibilities. All topics open to eternal debate.

We possess, however, a handy yardstick. One that endures and allows us to compare greats against greats, eras against eras, all objectively – titles and championships.

Professional sport is defined by victory. Talent and skill stand for little in defeat. Matt Le Tissier may be one of the most gifted to feature in the Premier League, but he will never in find himself any serious list of greats outside of Southampton Football Club.

In the sporting sense, greatness is only ever firmly grasped in victory, each time a trophy is lifted.

Crucially, titles and awards allow us to rank and count greatness. Everything exists in a hierarchy. League crowns are worth more than domestic cups, goals that win titles are worth more than those that secure mid-table finishes, the Ballon d'Or is more coveted than any domestic gong.

It’s why Pele’s three World Cups are his right to immortality, it’s why Sergio Aguero and Thierry Henry can lodge honest claims to be the greatest Premier League striker despite scoring fewer than Alan Shearer, it's why Lionel Messi will always have certain detractors until he wins something with Argentina.

And by this barometer of success, the answer to who was greater - Lampard or Gerrard – is neither.

Understated and undervalued, an English player ahead of his time, Owen Hargreaves achieved far more than both men combined in a fraction of the time.

In a media landscape where tribalism and outrage are the false economies bankrupting reasonable discourse, I argue not to tear down two greats of the modern game, but to highlight the injustice of a player deserving far greater fanfare.

Hargreaves was perennially the odd one out. An Englishman who’d never called the country home, an outsider forged in the still staunchly German world of Bayern Munich at the turn of the century, a midfielder who was tactically astute, defensively minded and with no desire for fame outside of the football pitch. And he knew how to slot from the spot. He was everything elite English footballers weren’t in the 00s.

In an era when Sven’s lopsided 4-4-2 cried out for balance and nuance at every major tournament, he was the athletic, disciplined, ball-playing midfielder overlooked for shinier baubles.

Whilst he can’t boast the goals, the longevity or the Hollywood moments of his two vaulted England peers, his tangible achievements more than match Gerrard and Lampard's.

An outstanding athlete, Hargreaves boasted remarkable stamina and surprising pace, topping the sprint charts as the quickest man at Manchester United when the squad was tested in 2007.

He was no mere water carrier either, a charge injudiciously levelled at holding midfielders of the time. Understated and undervalued, he was as technically gifted as he was tenacious and erudite enough to operate anywhere on the pitch bar centre half or centre forward.

A fine tackler and the best crosser of a ball the Stretford End has seen since Beckham, he ended the 2008 season having wrestled set pieces from Cristiano Ronaldo at the peak of his powers.

Both his goals for United that term came from match-winning free-kicks late in games, channelling Golden Balls' rare knack for locating the bottom corner of the net from 20 yards out.

There was genuine artistry and an unwavering clutch hidden under the hood of this German engineered midfield machine.

And he produced all of this against the odds. Gerrard and Lampard, one the darling of the Liverpool academy from a tender age, the other the son of a West Ham club hero, took the traditional route to the top. Hargreaves, however, had to hone his craft in the footballer backwater that is Canada before being dropped into the cauldron that is 'FC Hollywood' aged 16, unable to speak a word of German. His lonely route to the top, far from routine.

His successes were also despite awful luck with injuries. They eroded his 8 short years as a pro even further, having broken his leg once and suffering from the tendonitis that ended his career throughout.

That his premature physical disintegration was met with jeers rather than tears speaks volumes of a blinkered nation still obsessed with a myopic view of chest-thumping Englishness.

Understated and undervalued, those England fans who once booed his call ups might dismiss Hargreaves’ achievements abroad by lazily pointing to Bayern’s perceived monopoly over a weakened Bundesliga at the time.

Germany’s 2nd and 3rd place World Cup finishes, and the fact that there were more winners of Bundesliga in the period 2000-2007 than the EPL, points to a competitive league in rude health.

Such accusations were decisively rendered moot when he claimed a league and European title in a second country with Manchester United in 2008.

Arguably Hargreave's greatest crime was being born 10 years too early. Consider the thrall with which Jadon Sancho's every Teutonic triumph is greeted or the king's ransoms slapped on the head's of disciplined, ballplaying midfielders these days.

In the end, however, we come down to sheer facts of the biggest prizes, the tally that tells.

Gerrard and Lampard, for all their improbable talents, managed three league titles and two Champions League wins between them, across a combined total of 41 professional seasons.

That Hargreaves packed 5 league titles and two Champions League crowns into just 8 seasons is a measure of his quality and a tantalising taste of what could have been had his career not effectively ended age 27.

Understated and undervalued, Hargreaves was an English player ahead of his time. The contents of his mantlepiece deserve to ensure his reputation stands the test of it.