It’s Friday at the time of writing this sentence and that can mean only one thing – apart from all those other things. It’s Amy Eustace’s Friday column and this week she puts some perspective on the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) Awards.
If football was one of those clichéd American teen movies, the PFA Player of the Year Awards would be the equivalent of the scene announcing the prom queen. Sometimes the clean cut, fresh-faced protagonist wins, otherwise it’s the nasty, Queen Bee type with the (American) football-playing boyfriend. At best, it’s a glorified popularity contest.
You get what you ask for with a peer-voted award that has no discernible criteria; winners such as Ryan Giggs in 2009 (hardly a vintage year for the winger), Gareth Bale in 2011 (when his Champions League riot-running failed to match his inconsistent league performances), and David Ginola (preferred in 1999 to a host of other more exceptional candidates), exemplify the sometimes unpredictable fall of the dice when the members of the PFA take to the polls.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find an outstanding candidate. This year’s winner will be announced on April 28th and a host of Premier League players have been deservedly tipped for the gong, with Robin Van Persie, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez emerging as front-runners.
Arguably the current holder, Van Persie, had it in the bag until his recent dry spell. Having scored 17 goals in his first seven months at Manchester United, he has failed to find the back of the net since scoring against Everton in early February – 715 minutes ago. He could put an end to the drought this weekend at Stoke, a favoured hunting ground for the Dutchman, but failing that his bad luck in front of goal could reach Fernando Torres levels of cringe-inducing wretchedness. The Premier League doesn’t need another misfiring striker falling from grace. Nonetheless, his performances at his new club had been exemplary and his habit of banging in the goals wouldn’t have slipped from memory when the votes were cast in late March.
Gareth Bale, another recent winner, has practically carried Spurs this season, with his injury last week throwing them off course somewhat. Their first game without the influential Welsh winger was against Everton and the North London side could count themselves lucky to escape with a point. They crashing out of the Europa League on penalties against Basel on Thursday night – having trounced Inter Milan thanks in great part to Bale’s display in the first leg of the previous round. His suspension for the second leg of the Milan tie saw Spurs lose 4-1 on the night, but sneak through regardless.
Much of the debate about this year’s award surrounds the divisive figure of Luis Suarez. Steven Gerrard certainly seems to think his teammate deserves it, having said
If he doesn’t win an award this year, he’ll be the best player ever not to win one
Topping the goal scoring charts with 22 to his name to date, Suarez seems to have put the poor finishing of last season behind him. His character, on the other hand? Decidedly sketchy.
Misadventures in racism aside, his tendency to go to ground, the recent allegations of punching a player off the ball on international duty, and his general on-pitch demeanour aren’t likely to win fans among his peers. Not that fellow front-runner Gareth Bale is any stranger to the odd (ahem, regular) dive – he’s been booked for simulation four times this year, while Suarez has only been booked three times in two years at Liverpool. It just doesn’t stick out as much, when Bale is the darling of the British press and Suarez, so often, is the pantomime villain.
All for the ‘best’?
History has taught us not to put a great deal of stock in the results of the PFA Awards. It does what it says on the tin, after all – an award for football players voted on by football players with the only caveat being that the winner is adjudged to be ‘the best of the year in English football’. Best what, though? Goal scoring is always a measure, but surely that leaves out some of the great defensive and creative functions performed by defenders, goalkeepers and midfielders in favour of flashy forwards.
More often than not, it’s simply a case of who is the most-liked, which is why you’d imagine Luis Suarez has little more than a snowball’s chance in hell. When Ryan Giggs won in 2009 it was before the love-rat revelations that dogged him soon after and was largely seen as a sentimental vote based on his top flight, one-club longevity and success. Arguably, Giggs deserved it more 10 years previously, when the title went to David Ginola for his League Cup winning exploits at Spurs. That said, there has probably never been a player as widely derided for his personality but so consistently, jaw-droppingly brilliant as Suarez has proven to be. His candidacy will, if nothing else, prove a real challenge to the popularity contest vibe.
In defence of the award
Speaking of players with bad attitudes, Chelsea’s John Terry won it in 2005 before he was cleared of racism charges, confirmed as a cheater or portrayed as an all-round bad egg (although we probably could have guessed). Terry’s win flies in the face of the pattern of strikers, wingers and attacking midfielders scooping the prize – and a defender hadn’t won the award since Paul McGrath in 1993, and hasn’t won it since. A goalkeeper hasn’t been crowned the winner since Peter Shilton and Pat Jennings, in 1978 and 1976 respectively.
The truth is, flawed though the PFA Awards may be, we simply don’t have a scale of excellence for players that crosses all positional disciplines; only a fuzzy vertical line that begins somewhere around Titus Bramble and ends, indisputably, with Lionel Messi. Players only need to justify their selections to themselves, and whether they do that based purely on goals, on behaviour or their own personal grudges and man-crushes, that’s their business. We can disagree as much as we want but at the end of the day, it’s like being voted class president, or homecoming queen, or whatever other formulaic US sitcom competition you can think of – it’s not a panel of experts, it’s a panel of half-witted football players. Who really cares what they think anyway?
End of the line for ‘over the line’ debates
- The wait is almost over. After years of shedding pointless tears over bad refereeing decisions, disallowed goals, ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’, the Premier League will finally get goal-line technology starting in August. The contract for the new introduction goes to Hawk-Eye, who’ll use seven cameras per goal to ensure there’s never a repeat of this gem. Referees everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief, but in this writer’s opinion, the demise of the ghost goal is something to mourn about – until it works in our favour, of course.
What’s Cup with Wigan?
- The big fixture on this weekend’s bill is undoubtedly Manchester City’s FA Cup semi final date with Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday. Both City and Chelsea’s stars have been playing down the tie, emphasising that it is, in fact, NOT a final, even though whoever wins will be facing off against Wigan or Millwall depending on the outcome of their semi on Saturday. On that note, Saturday’s match will be open to neutral spectators, seeing as – predictably – Wigan were struggling to sell their 31,000 ticket allocation. Millwall, based in London, have almost sold out of their tickets, despite only managing a crowd of 9,000 at their most recent league fixture. Wigan have struggled to sell out their allotment, even though this the club’s first appearance in an FA Cup semi-final.
You just Xav’ to admire him
- Sometimes, Barcelona are just downright sickening. Xavi hitting the upper 90s in terms of pass completion percentages is a phenomenon about as old as Taribo West by now, but against Paris Saint-Germain the other night he racked up an unbelievable 100% – 96 passes attempted, 96 passes completed – according to Opta. Excuse me, I need a lie down just thinking about it.