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Facing the football family

Thanks to the power of online campaigns, be they via Twittter or any similar medium, terms like “the football family” have taken on a faceless, amorphous dimension of late. We now express grief as a hashtag, outrage via a petition and we expect our global response to any given incident to go viral within hours of it happening.

This is of course a good thing –- remarkable even. However it can lead to a certain loss of focus or tangibility when it comes to “doing good”.

It was pleasant then this week to actually see the “football family” sit down to dinner, have a nice natter, and then put its money where its mouth was. That just happened to be London’s swanky Grosvenor House hotel where 1 000 people gathered to raise funds for a very deserving cause.

As they have done since 1996, the football and music industries joined forces to support the Nordoff-Robbins charity, which uses music as a form of therapy for ill and vulnerable people, especially children, across the UK.

The night raised more than £350 000 and the “Football Extravaganza”, as it is known, has now contributed a total of £6 million to Nordoff-Robbins. Those numbers are a tribute to the pulling power of celebrity attendees – seated at Wednesday night’s top table were Alan Shearer, Graeme Souness, Sol Campbell, Gary Neville and current Barclays Premier League stars Frank Lampard and Brad Friedel.

They were joined by Brian Deane, scorer of the first Premier League goal, and Colin Hendry from former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers as the night’s theme was a celebration of the league’s 20th anniversary.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Ryan Giggs appeared by video screen and British Prime Minister David Cameron even popped up with some words of support recorded on his current trip to Asia.

Sprinkled around the room were players, managers (Alex McLeish, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley) and also another player with a significant Premier League achievement to his name. At one point, Emile Heskey joined four other players on stage to recognise their place in the exclusive “Premier League 500 Club” (those who have played 500 matches in the competition). Giggs was also feted in his absence and Gary Speed's widow Louise collected his award.

The Premier League's 20 Seasons Awards, which will honour the greatest players, managers and moments in Premier League history, will be launched on Tuesday 17 April. The Football Extravaganza provided a showcase for the awards and also stimulated an evening’s worth of debate amongst those attending: which was the best goal? Who was the best player?

It was fascinating to sit next to David James and watch his reaction to a compilation of stunning saves by the likes of Peter Schmeichel. One never tires of watching the “best of” videos featuring Gianfranco Zola, Denis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona, Shearer and many others who have graced this league with their skills. But who was the best? At my table alone, it was a debate between a celebrity chef, TV commentator, newspaper journalist, a current player and an agent. That debate will now broaden to the wider Premier League-watching world and I can’t wait to see it go viral, hashtags and all.

Just to kick things off on this page, I can tell you I was recently asked by the Barclays Awards Panel to pick my top 20 players from the Premier League’s 20 seasons and it was as excruciatingly difficult to do, as you might imagine.

Right up front, I’ll tell you I ended up picking Ryan Giggs as my No 1, as so much about his remarkable career dovetails with the 20 years theme: an ever-present, a goal-scorer in every season, a serial winner of titles, a physical phenomenon… it’s hard to look beyond him.

But there are those who will, and that is the beauty of these debates. To start with, there is always a past-versus-present argument (even if 20 years is hardly long enough to have seen radical change in the nature of Premier League football). Just how does one rank Frank Lampard (with his remarkable scoring record) in comparison with Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira (still impossible to separate those two)?

Where does a uniquely-talented player like Matt Le Tissier fit in? If Paul Scholes is as good as people like Pele and Xavi Hernandez say he is, how can he not be in front of Giggs. Do goals outweigh everything when it comes to rating the game? If so, should Shearer be at the very top of the list? Do goalkeepers and defenders tend to get overlooked at times like this – are Rio Ferdinand and John Terry as worthy of a place as Sol Campbell? Who, other than Schmeichel, makes the list from the ranks of Premier league goalies?

Over to you, football family.

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