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Jul 19, 2013

What makes a football hero?

In a summer of high-profile retirements, there was one that stood out - or, rather, drifted away.

• Usher: Gerrard the greatest?

While Paul Scholes was praised to the Old Trafford roof and Jamie Carragher enjoyed the entirely deserved adulation of Anfield, there was no such fanfare for Michael Owen. A few lines of respect, but many more jibes.

When you properly stand back and give due consideration, it does seem a curious thing that a player with that talent and that trophy haul isn't truly cherished anywhere.

A large part of it, of course, is that Owen turned out for both the clubs of Scholes and Carragher. His history at one spoiled the prospects of full acceptance at the other, while his decision to join Manchester United simultaneously destroyed all those memories at Liverpool. In between, he was never more than a substitute at Real Madrid while seemingly ever only treating Newcastle United as a substitute for something better.

For England, meanwhile, the manner in which the game's tactics moved beyond Owen ensured he ended up giving managers a selection dilemma rather than a guaranteed source of goals. By the 2006 World Cup, that famous strike against Argentina seemed a lot longer than eight years beforehand.

It was because of moments like that at France 98, though, that Owen ended up becoming that most distinct of breeds: a player with a certain legacy in the sport itself but none at any particular club. The prime of his career will always be respected, but never now loved.

Even leaving aside talent, he will never be a Duncan Ferguson, a Ciro Ferrara or a Luis Enrique.

It is an issue that raises a question about the exact legacies that players leave behind; what actually elevates or diminishes an individual's status at a team? Why, precisely, is Steven Gerrard so much more loved at Liverpool than a player who was influential in winning so much more, like Graeme Souness? Why, at Arsenal, were the transfers of Cesc Fabregas and Liam Brady so much more palatable than those of Robin van Persie and Frank Stapleton?

At the same time, every club has those players who fans would rather airbrush out of some fine moments: Sol Campbell at Tottenham Hotspur, Carlos Tevez at Manchester United and Owen - of course - at Liverpool.

Conversely, there are always those who outsiders would think have a status disproportionate to their quality and contribution.

As writer Andy Mitten argued when covering the recent 'legends' match between Real Madrid and Manchester United, that term is grossly overused but there are a few criteria which could help define it in a club sense.

Naturally, there is an awful lot of emotion and subjectivity to such considerations. Some of it just can't be explained. But, without wishing to get to the point in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams rips up a purported mathematical formula to judge the quality of poetry, the difference is that football is ultimately a results-based business where the finest wins form some of the greatest moments of people's lives. That is undeniably a key facet in deciding the legacies of certain players...

Performance

The most obvious one. Ultimately, those who lift the club to higher levels will generally be beyond reproach: the Kenny Dalglishes, the Didier Drogbas, the Thierry Henrys. Along the same spectrum, there are those more limited players who admirably perform well beyond their talent: the Ray Parlours, the Luis Garcias. The majority of landmark trophy-winning sides are a given, as well as those who perform supreme feats in times of difficulty. The opposite side of this, though, is individuals who never truly fulfil their ability at certain clubs. Diego Maradona, for example, may be commonly considered the greatest player of all time but he will always remain behind Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Johan Cruyff and Leo Messi at Barcelona. Along the same lines, performance can be undercut by any of the following...

Identification with fans

Local lads who fulfil local dreams will always endear themselves even more, which is exactly the case with the likes of Carragher and Scholes. More than anyone else, they seem in tune with the mood on the terraces, not least because that's often where they've come from. There also tends to be particular warmth for those foreign players who completely buy into the ethos of a club and 'get' what it is about. Didi Hamann and Patrice Evra are prime examples, while Dennis Bergkamp effectively personified the new Arsenal from the mid-90s. Alternatively, there are those who simply don't seem to fit at a club, who never appear completely happy regardless of display.

Individual moments

Every club has at least one, those instances in history where it all comes together to produce the most extreme emotional reaction. For Manchester United, it's the Nou Camp 99. For Arsenal, it's Anfield 1989. For Liverpool, it's Istanbul 2005. For Manchester City, it's Eastlands 2012. Players like Vladimir Smicer and Michael Thomas found themselves in exactly the right place at the right time, and can point to the emotions they created any time their credentials are questioned. The flipside is a single slip that can colour an entire career. Nicolas Anelka's penalty miss in the 2008 Champions League final, for example, will always somewhat overshadow his Golden Boot the following season.

Longevity

A factor that trumps all manner of flaws. While an extended career at a club does not necessarily denote sufficient quality, it does indicate service and loyalty - the sort of attributes that carry an extra resonance. On the opposite side, brief periods can diminish the most brilliant of displays. For all the emotion that Luis Suarez engenders at Liverpool, for example, can he really be considered a 'legend' if he leaves after just two and a half years and with only one trophy?

Manner of exit

There can't have been too many departures as perfect as Didier Drogba's. The forward left Chelsea at the highest possible point, scoring the penalty that finally delivered the trophy they desired above all. Even if some fans felt that should have ensured an extended stay, it did mean his time could never be tarnished after what felt like a natural conclusion to his Stamford Bridge career.

Some have found that difficult, and never quite known when to leave. It can create unnecessary acrimony, while diminished levels of performance can sour perceptions of displays that were once beyond reproach. Gary Neville realised this a little too late at Manchester United in early 2011. Finally, there are those who look to force their way out, who suddenly see the club as beneath them or having served their use. There are copious examples of those who managed to corrode the feats of their careers at one club: Fernando Torres, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and - of course - Owen.

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