Players of the Year awards, especially at a club level have always felt odd to me. At a basic level, giving a congratulatory award for the best player in a given season is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t seem to hold any form of long-term merit. Who was Bradford City’s player of the year two seasons ago? Can anyone name him without resorting to Google? (It was James Hanson.) Nathan Doyle, Luke O’Brien and Joe Colbeck have all had the honour of winning the award in recent times. Colbeck managed to win the award despite being unceremoniously loaned out to Darlington midseason.
This isn’t America, we don’t refer to someone as a ‘three-time MVP’. For one reason or another, we don’t hold it with that sort of credence.
Who won the PFA Footballer of the Year last year? (Answer: Gareth Bale) Was he deserving? Probably not. Can anyone remember that he won it? No. What did his award tell us about English football in 2010/11? Not a thing. (Other than there was a dearth of legitimate candidates, arguably a descriptor in itself). More people remember Scott Parker winning the Football Writers’ Player of the Year, only because it was a more preposterous choice than Bale.
One reason behind the lack of credence applied to Player of the Year Awards is the unavoidable subjective nature of opinion. What criteria are we actually judging on here? The player who graced the greatest heights? The most consistent player? The one who did most with least? Every year we think it means something different. Even in the same year.
Gareth Bale and Scott Parker both won ‘Player of the Year’ awards last season, one of them on the back of two games against Inter Milan, one for consistently being the best player in the worst team in the division whose appearance leaders were Frederic Piquionne and Carlton Cole. What can we take from this? How can these two players win essentially the same award?
A more fundamental issue is that the Player of the Year often isn’t descriptive of that season, when by definition, that should be the point of the award. The player of the season.
Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo’s award from 2007/08 reminds us that was the year he scored a shit ton of goals, and Steven Gerrard’s 08/09 award reminds us that was the year his team bottled the title, what does Bale’s title tell us? What of Giggs’ title in 2009?
This season Robin van Persie will win all the awards, and in a way, rightly so. He has been the best player in England. But it doesn’t describe the season in which his performances occurred, only that this was the year Arsenal had a rubbish team, but van Persie wouldn’t let them be that rubbish, dragging them slowly up to respectability.
Conversely, David Silva’s arc would perfectly describe this season. A player who for six months was in rarefied air, almost transcendent, gracing a level seldom seen in this country, before falling away completely as his team threw away the Championship. Similarly, someone like Jonny Evans, much maligned, often described as not good enough to wear the shirt, fought through the criticism early in the year to hit an imperious run of form after Christmas and haul in City to win another title. He wouldn’t have touched a title winning team in years passed, but in this diluted edition, he’s flourished.
Whilst neither of them will win any awards, they are a better fit for the Player ‘of’ this Year than a great striker in a mediocre team that had little impact on anything.
This brings me back onto the Bradford City Player of the Year award, which is due to be announced shortly. Last year’s non-event summed up the year better than any recipient ever could. However I’m loath to praise decision makers on this point as this output wasn’t their intention, rather a shameless grab at publicity (Gasp!) whilst abdicating themselves of responsibility for events on the field.
This season however, the show must go on (now that the Friends of Bradford City have taken over organisational duties), and the debate of who should be selected rings loud around BD8 (primarily from fans desperately searching for any conversation not involving the words ‘league’ and ‘table’).
Luke Oliver, Andrew Davies and Kyel Reid stand as the front-runners, and with two thirds of that group presently banned and shamed, City’s dominant left-winger must fancy his chances. But should he win?
Again it comes down to the criteria used to judge. Does it go to player who graced the highest heights? If so then it’s Davies, he has been two divisions better than any opponent he’s faced this year. But at the conclusion of the year, he will have been banned for twelve games, and missed a chunk of the first half of the season before signing. And the whole ‘shaming the club’ thing. Giving him the Player of the Year award probably wouldn’t be the best PR move. Not that inviting terrible PR would be novel for Bradford City FC.
Should the award go to the most consistent player? The one who has performed at the highest level the longest? Then I suppose it has to be Oliver. I would describe this season as his renaissance but that would imply that he has played at this level before. I’m ill-prepared to comment substantially on his pre-Bradford career, but since he arrived at the club under Peter Taylor, I’ve tagged him as an underachiever, a player who probably should be better than he is. This season he has proved me spectacularly wrong, turning in performances week after week of the highest quality. A true breakout season if ever there was one. However, he suffers the same downfall as Davies. You just can’t give him it. You can’t.
James Hanson is an interesting case (and would probably be my choice if subjected to a vote). The team’s top scorer (not close), Hanson has bounced back from a difficult second season in which injuries hindered to the point he never really got going. Many City fans hold an unwarranted resentment to their big centre forward, in spite of his decent goal record, age, local background and work rate. They also ignore the criminal service he has received his entire career. He has toiled away all season long miscast as a target man. His running and link-up play have improved markedly, as well as goal tally, where he is one shy of his record. He’s never played in an attacking (let alone good) team, and the way Hanson has applied himself and improved over the year has impressed.
However, City’s most valuable player, the player without whom they cannot function as an offensive unit, and likely Bradford City Player of the Year is Kyel Reid. He has been exceptional throughout the year, providing a consistency on the left hand side of midfield seldom seen in wingers at this level. We often acknowledge inconsistent output as part of the territory with lower league wingers, but he shatters that paradigm. He’s likely one division (minimum) below his true level. Being able to reach these consistent heights without any overlapping full back to draw away defenders from pressing him, nor a legitimate threat on the other flank to prevent the double team, or a stable central midfield able to feed him the ball effectively, is truly staggering. He has received absolutely no help and is up against two defenders every time he picks up the ball. He would be a worthy winner of the club’s most outstanding player in this tortured season.
But does he define this season? Will this award go down with Colbeck as that season when a winger had a good year in a mediocre-to-poor team? Who you wish to select on these grounds depends on your view of the narrative from this season. Has it been a constant battle against fate and luck, relying on experienced leaders to carry us through? Bullock’s your man. Lee Bullock is an interesting case actually; one could argue that he has been the side’s most ‘important’ player over the second half of the season, playing at a level above that expected of him, all over the park. He stands as one of the few I’d be sad to see go in the summer, his commitment and performance really have impressed.
What about this season as a battle of change, with the ongoing war between the experienced and the young, the short term and the long term? Jon McLaughlin could have a case. Parkinson replaced McLaughlin before he had an opportunity to change his mind, citing an experienced goalkeeper as a fundamental component of any good team. But as time wore on it became patently obvious that, despite his age, McLaughlin was just better. Parkinson held on as long as he could to Matt Duke, but eventually he could no longer contest the evidence. McLaughlin has gone on to have a solid year, allaying many of the accident-prone fears of his initial excursions into the first team. But again, you know, brawl and that.
Nahki Wells would have another argument along similar lines. He represents the talented, confident, brash side of this City team repressed throughout the year in favour a staunch rigidity. Ever since his explosive entry against Barnet under Colin Cooper, Wells has carried the look of something special. However it took Parkinson over two months to select him, and even then, even when he and Hanson forged the season’s apex over Christmas, Parkinson seemed reticent to include the Bermudan, replacing him numerous times, with limited-to-no success. Wells has shown the ability to grow into something far more than what we have seen on the pitch this year, but has been inhibited by his manager, and personally I feel that narrative has the strongest resonance for this team.
My selection however would be the man who missed out last year. I can’t think of a player whose arc sums up this season more accurately than David Syers. Beginning the season impressively, he was imperious at Elland Road (and his injury changed the outcome of that game), he appeared to be not just a building block, but the building block for the club. A charismatic, intelligent and local overachiever Syers arrow was pointing firmly upwards, and still is. At the start of the season under Peter Jackson, he was the face of the future, the focal point of a young, exciting team which was going to grow together and become something. Then as Bradford led for a second time at Elland Road, Andy Lonergan careered into his outstretched leg, and everything began to spiral. (That injury was an underrated storyline of the Jackson regime, Syers was critical to that team, and whilst Jones and Flynn were serviceable, neither had the attacking flair or goal scoring ability of Syers. I’d argue he stood as the last man Jackson would have wanted to receive a long term injury.)
Syers was able to return as a substitute in the Boxing Day game against Crewe, and the side he re-entered bore little resemblance to the one he left 2-1 up at Leeds, with James Hanson the only man to start both games. New Year’s Eve saw his first start since August where he was unceremoniously sent off in the midst of a 3-1 win. Since that day, minor niggles and managerial decisions have seen him limited to five starts.
His season never really started. Neither has his team’s. They both have been victims of countless setbacks (the club’s being far more self-inflicted than Syers’) and have spent the majority of the season just scrambling from week to week without ever really establishing an identity. A season of optimism for Syers and City turned on the moment when Andy Lonergan crashed into Syers’ leg and the initially goal bound flick trickled wide. I often wonder what would have happened if Syers’ arrived at the ball a split second earlier, able to successfully dink the ball over Lonergan into the gaping goal in front of the Bradford faithful, whilst avoiding injury. Would Peter Jackson still be in charge? Would Mitchell, Stewart et al still be featured members of the squad? Would we be better off now than we are? Would we be worse? The same?
What ifs are often pointless, but that is all this season has become, a succession of what ifs. What if we did this? What if that didn’t happen? What if that happens?
Looking back on this season in five years time, we may remember it as that year when Kyel Reid was really good on the left wing and the club was nationally shamed for that fight. But this was the year of David Syers, the year that never started, the year that might have been. The year of What If?