Once upon a time, the PFA Awards were the undisputed measure of a season’s most valuable players. Voted for by the Professionals themselves, the response to their announcement was one of awed hush and consent – how could mere onlookers presume to know better than those involved in the rough and tumble of the actual sport?
But the saccharin, sentimental and simply silly award of the 2009 Players’ Player award to Ryan Giggs changed all that. In one fell swoop, footballers were shown to be as susceptible to a bit of old fashioned press lobbying as the rest of us. There followed the regular employment of Alan Shearer and Robbie Savage by the BBC, as well as Twitter’s tendency to expose an all-pervading brainlessness, and suddenly, the opinions of those who make a living from playing the game were discredited seemingly beyond repair.
The online response to Sunday’s gongs was the fiercest yet – with fans up and down the land queuing up to argue the case for or against certain players’ inclusion or non-inclusion while usually, it must be said, proclaiming the virtues of their own. This unholy cacophony of partisanship and cluelessness threatened to abort the airwaves at times, punctuated as it was by the most vicious and unpleasant hatred of all – the massed ranks of Sheffielders condemning and defending Ched Evans depending on their stripe.
So taking an objective view of the three PFA Football League selects is a tricky business. Away from the hubbub of the Premier League, are the choosers getting it right? Do they vote too early? How much thought do they really put into it? Are they furnished with short lists in advance? A recent debate on Five Live involving a Steve Claridge supposedly ‘in the know’ left me none the wiser on this last point.
We decided to try and ponder these questions and here are the results of a gut reaction critique of the three XIs, laced with a respectable amount of eye witness judgement:
Robert Olejnik (Torquay), Paul Caddis (Swindon), Kyle McFadzean (Crawley), Ian Sharps (Shrewsbury), Kevin Nicholson (Torquay), Matt Ritchie (Swindon), Marlon Pack (Cheltenham), Eunan O’Kane (Torquay), Lee Mansell (Torquay), Izale McLeod (Barnet), Tyrone Barnett (Crawley)
My fellow blogger Lloyd, a man of Plymouth, cast his eye over the selections and failed to suppress his Devonian pride at Torquay’s hearty representation; surmising that the quartet of accolades received by the Gulls could be down to a general fondness for the club on the part of other professionals and their image as a modest bunch of pros which have over performed.
The list can be organised into three main groupings: experienced old hands at this level (Sharps, Nicholson, Mansell); the best non-leaguers who have worked their way up (McFadzean, Barnett) and those who have been released by top clubs (Olejnik, Caddis, Ritchie, O’Kane, McLeod). Olejnik in particular is too good a goalkeeper for League 2 and one would expect him to be playing at a higher echelon next term if potential suitors can overlook his height.
Of the defenders, it has taken Caddis a while to reach his potential, but he seems to have progressed well this season after being made captain at the County Ground, while McFadzean is a hard nut who was one of those sent off in the Bradford Armageddon – his grittiness might see him reach the Championship at some point.
Despite the doubts of our recent interviewee Andrew Harding, Ian Sharps is a Shrewsbury stalwart, although he has the air of a carthorse, three appearances in the PFA team for the fourth tier speaks wonders, while Steady Eddie Torquay duo Kevin Nicholson and Lee Mansell have both agreed extended deals of late.
Lloyd was especially pleased to see Marlon Pack selected, thinking he was the only one who had spotted his promise on an early season trip to Cheltenham and even going so far to describe him as a ‘great playmaker of the Beckham mould’, while one time big money mover Izale McLeod has found a fitting home at Barnet after an injury ravaged spell at Charlton.
Matt Ritchie’s inclusion was a certainty even if one wonders what he’s doing in League Two and as for Tyrone Barnett, his presence is puzzling given he has spent much of 2012 in the Championship at Peterborough – former partner in crime Matt Tubbs left Crawley for Bournemouth around the same time and might also have expected to be taken into account. Ditto the likes of Northampton winger Michael Jacobs, Crewe wunderkind Nick Powell, twenty goal Lewis Grabban of Rotherham, Hereford’s Tom Barkhuizen, Bristol Rovers’ duo Matt Harrold and Mustapha Carayol, Plymouth defensive lynchpin Maxime Blanchard and on loan Cheltenham netminder Jack Butland.
Ben Hamer (Charlton), Jack Hunt (Huddersfield), Michael Morrison (Charlton), Harry Maguire (Sheffield United), Rhoys Wiggins (Charlton), Johnnie Jackson (Charlton), Stephen Quinn (Sheffield United), Stephen Gleeson (MK Dons), Darren Potter (MK Dons), Jordan Rhodes (Huddersfield), Ched Evans (Sheffield United)
For the middle section of our analysis, we turned to Carlisle United fan and TTU staffer, John McGee and it’s well worth conveying his thoughts verbatim:
“Let’s be honest, there is only one real story around the League One team – the inclusion of Ched Evans. On this I make a rare confession – I can’t better Martin Samuel’s views in this week’s Daily Mail – it’s not often I find myself agreeing with ‘The Walrus’. Despite this, I must confess that Evans is, by a fair distance, the best player I’ve personally seen this season. Despite finishing on the losing side at Brunton Park, his personal contribution bettered that of all others. The decision to include him should never have been a ‘pure football call’ as the administrators have stuffily suggested; though his sheer prodigious talent perhaps makes his personal shortcomings stick in the craw even more.
The fact this inclusion overshadows discussion of the whole team is a real shame as it betrays an embarrassing lack of originality and critical thought.
Elsewhere Charlton, Huddersfield and Evans’ erstwhile Sheffield United colleagues dominate. No one can question Jordan Rhodes’ inclusion as ‘sniffer extraordinaire’ but my own view remains that it was his hideous over-valuation that saw him stay at the Galpharm in January; not, as the club suggested, their determination to keep him. He is certainly a less complete League One striker than Charlton’s revelatory Yann Kermorgant or Sheffield Wednesday’s Gary Madine and his easiest comparator is Reading hero Adam Le Fondre for whom the Royals paid under half a million pounds. £6million? Baddiel and Skinner territory that.
As for Jack Hunt? Well he was recently given the roasting of his young career by an out of sorts François Zoko and while it’s difficult to chastise him for a single performance, the sheer weight of praise for Chris Solly should have seen him get the jump on the Huddersfield man especially when his Addicks team mate Rhoys Wiggins (rightly) takes the left sided berth.
I’m also pleased to see the old classic of picking the goalie who plays behind the best defence endures. In fairness, Ben Hamer is a good player but this example more than any highlights how self-selecting these teams can be. I can imagine a fly on the wall of the average PFA member when filling the ballot – ‘Err, who hasn’t let many in? Errrrrr…. well Charlton are good.’ Of all the teams selected, the League One team is utterly devoid of any maverick picks, with even Sheffield Wednesday (probably by rote of early season ‘Meggoball’) strangely absent. Why not have Chris Day of Stevenage in goal? Their surprise success is surely a corollary of their building from Day’s monolithic experience between the sticks?
Indeed, there’s an argument for just picking the entire Stevenage team. On paper they have absolutely no right to be where they are, and can we really credit Graham Westley now given that their success has endured and returned under Gary Smith? They have the second best defensive record in the league – where are Scott Laird and Darius Charles? Where’s Stuart Beavon who’s scored 20 goals in an awful Wycombe team? David Mirfin and Jon Parkin who have dragged Scunthorpe from the mire since Christmas?
In midfield, and placing bias to one side, I’m glad to see the uncomplicated MK duo of Stephen Gleeson and Darren Potter here. Both fit my own bias blueprint of shovelling the ball out wide at every opportunity and marking space, I’d certainly rather them than starrier names like Anton Robinson and David Prutton – though Danny Hollands, Gavin Mahon and James Berrett have strong calls to these berths too. Wednesday fans will no doubt disagree with Potter’s inclusion – he was an ill-placed blamehorse for last year’s woes – they’re wrong, the best teams in League One need a water carrier. He’s certainly more welcome than Sheffield United’s woefully over-rated show pony Stephen Quinn – surely here because voters couldn’t recall the names of Notts County’s Alan Judge and Jeff Hughes, or Quinn’s team-mate Kevin MacDonald, to play on the opposite wing to utter shoo-in Johnnie Jackson.
Given the strength of the top five ‘bloc’ in this year’s League One, their wrapping up all selections may be excusable to some, but that ignores the fact that football’s real heroes are those who can still ‘do it’ in a team of stiffs. (Why else is Steven Gerrard so lauded on Merseyside?) Shame on the division’s footballers for failing to understand that fundamental truism.”
Kelvin Davis (Southampton), Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace), James Tomkins (West Ham), Curtis Davies (Birmingham), Ian Harte (Reading), Adam Lallana (Southampton), Peter Whittingham (Cardiff), Mark Noble (West Ham), Matt Phillips (Blackpool), Rickie Lambert (Southampton), Jay Rodriguez (Burnley)
All of which brings us to my own view of the Championship’s best men; all of whom I have seen play in the flesh barring Curtis Davies – and it’s encouraging to see such a onetime talent back in clover of sorts – all being well, I should finally get to see him in action on Saturday. Indeed, I don’t have too many quibbles with the XI as laid down on paper, even if it doesn’t quite restore my faith in the judgement of footballers.
Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana richly deserve their mentions and the former has every chance of equalling Grant Holt’s achievements should the Saints beat Coventry on Saturday – look out for this lad in the Premier League. The midfield also exudes quality – no argument over Whittingham or Noble, both of whom are a class above. Perhaps only Matt Phillips of the quartet is undeserving – given his club manager often leaves him as a bench warmer, earmarking him as one of the best eleven in the League may be over egging it, even if talent wise, few are on a par with him and his manager is…well…a bit barking.
It will be an embarrassment for ex-England men Robert Green and Carlton Cole not to have made it although I would have opted for an alternative to Jay Rodriguez in attack – Kevin Phillips is certainly the Championship striker who has scared me the most. Other doubts would surround Ian Harte – actually omitted for Joseph Mills for large sections of the autumn and far from Reading’s most impressive player, even if his accuracy with the dead ball does harvest points Moneyball style – and James Tomkins; one of those youngsters who the ‘appy ‘ammer worshipping press hordes tell us is good – but is he? His deployment in a cataclysmic midfield role in the second half at home to Reading does bias my judgement.
As for those Champions, as I have said this week, the Royals were very much a sum of their parts although Jem Karacan, Kaspars Gorkšs and Alex Pearce will all have gone close, along with Barnsley’s Jacob Butterfield (possibly robbed of a place by injury mid-season), Ricardo Vaz Tê (for two clubs), Brighton’s skill merchant Vicente, Hull central defender James Chester and Palace’s young bucks Wilfried Zaha and Jonathan Williams. David Bentley? Probably not.
So overall, our assessment is that the Championship and League Two selects represent decent fists, but League One’s is suspect – blighted by the concentration on players from ‘big’ clubs and irretrievably damned by the decision to keep Evans in. Shamefully, 2012 will go down as a new low in the history of the event even if a welter of those rewarded are deserving of the recognition – that the PFA hierarchy chose to operate in a moral vacuum is not the fault of the bulk of their membership.