Football awards tend to frustrate and aggravate in equal measure. The same old big- name nominees are trotted out again and again, often regardless of form or even, sometimes, ability. If such awards are to be dished out at all, surely the consistently outstanding performers should be the recipients. It rarely pans out this way. The PFA Players’ Player of the Year – for which the shortlist was announced this week – is no exception.
First of all, letting the pros loose to cast a vote is perhaps the very worst feasible method of coming up with a deserving winner. Yes, there are a number of honourable exceptions, but the bulk of top-flight footballers are incapable of making a discerning decision without the aid of their omniscient agent. A significant sub-section of the Premier League glitterati also have very little interest in what goes on in football outside of their own monetary gain. To cap it all, the vote in held in late February.
As Arsene Wenger says, February is hardly the most crucial stage of the season and that means the players rewarded are those who played well until that time only.
“Now is the most important time of the season - April, May,” says the Arsenal boss. “A player who has been out until January has no chance to be voted but he can still be very influential for the climax of the season.”
The shortlist spewed out by this ill-designed process offers few surprises: Nemanja Vidic, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand of champions-elect Manchester United are joined by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard.
Van der Sar’s inclusion is directly attributable to his enviable clean-sheet record which has slipped spectacularly over recent weeks, in the absence of the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership. The Dutchman’s performances have featured a growing number of errors and Ben Foster’s comparative excellence in the Carling Cup final has thrown the 38-year-old’s declining powers into an even harsher light. Vidic has seen a similar decline in his hitherto consistently rock-like showings of late, sans Ferdinand. The nightmarish 90 minutes the Serbian endured in what could yet prove to be a Premier League-deciding clash with Liverpool might be valid cause for reassessment of his claims to the accolade.
Giggs would be a largely sentimental choice. Indeed punters have backed the pros to follow this line of thought, as bookmakers Coral have had to suspend betting on the event due to the vast chunks of cash being laid on the Welsh wizard. His level of performance has been his best for many a year and he would make that rarest of things – an (almost) universally popular Manchester United winner, but these factors alone are not justification for a triumph at the PFA Awards. Instead, someone should hand over a much-belated gong for ‘Most Inspired Exit From International Football’: Giggs’ one-man-band destruction of the then-excellent Czech Republic side at a rapturous Millennium Stadium in 2007 remains one of the finest individual displays I’ve seen from any footballer past or present. How the game eventually ended 0-0 remains a mystery.
Ferdinand’s continued supremacy at centre half would make him an outstanding candidate for the award, though injury has disrupted both his and United’s previously serene progress at home and in Europe. Of the World Champions innumerable other squad members, it is their midfield metronome, Michael Carrick, who might feel most aggrieved at missing out on a nod. The quiet man of the Old Trafford engine room has seen his stature rise throughout the campaign and even grisly old Fabio Capello has finally succumbed to the Geordie’s playmaking charms.
Elsewhere, chief title rivals Liverpool might well have garnered another couple of nominees, had the vote been cast more recently. Certainly, the omission of the tigerish Javier Mascherano from the list is a glaring error. Xabi Alonso’s stylish promptings alongside the Argentina captain have drawn rave reviews following his summertime flirtation with the Anfield exit and he could, too, have been acknowledged.
At Chelsea, Michael Essien has returned to action too late to make an impact on the vote, but is potentially a future winner of the award. Jose Bosingwa’s spectacular start in English football has dimmed and while Nicolas Anelka has top-scored, he has somehow managed to underwhelm. Arsenal’s renaissance has been prompted by the arrival of Andrei Arshavin and subsequent return of a number of key players. However, the Gunners would struggle (with the possible exception of Robin van Persie) to put forward a credible challenger for the players’ award.
Proving there is life outside the big four, few could have argued with the inclusion on the list of either of Everton’s defensive duo; Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka. Tim Cahill has again proved his unique ability to score headers from any range or angle since returning from injury, while Mikel Arteta’s stellar start was curtailed by the rupturing of his cruciate knee ligament in February. Versatile Marouane Fellaini has also been an exciting addition to the Premier League.
Villa’s Gabby Agbonlahor reached a career-high with his barnstorming early-season performances, but understandably – given his lone forward role and the Villans thin squad/hectic schedule combination – has waned of late. Ashley Young, Stillian Petrov and Gareth Barry have regularly excelled too, for the side which briefly threatened to rudely interrupt the top four hegemony.
This season too, Bolton’s Kevin Davies finally managed to add goals to an otherwise outstanding all-round game; Steven Ireland has continually lit up a gloomy on-field year for Man City; success at Fulham, West Ham and Wigan, meanwhile, has been earned through consistent collective performances, rather than as a result of stunning individual displays.
Having weighed up all the options, it seems that the prime candidate for the PFA accolade must be the man who has dragged his team-mates onwards and upwards throughout his club’s first truly sustained title challenge for years. The player with the intangible ability to turn a game with one charging run and shot or perhaps by spectacular interplay with a similarly gifted Spanish forward (with whom he has struck up one of the most exciting partnerships in world football). The irreplaceable attacking fulcrum of his side; with seven Premier League assists and 21 goals in all competitions. Of course, that man’s name is Steven Gerrard.
Agree? Disagree? Who would be your award winner and who should’ve made the shortlist?