In 2009, a Manchester City fan emailed Gordon Taylor, the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), and wanted to know how Ryan Giggs might have ended up on the shortlist of nominees for the Player of the Year award could.
A back-and-forth ensued, with the City supporter pointing out how few games Giggs had started and Taylor explaining it was a completely democratic process based on the number of votes the players received from their peers.
“I can tell you the situation as it is,” Taylor replied. “If you’re not lucky and think you’re such a ballot expert, maybe you should go to Zimbabwe or Russia in the next election and tell everyone how to vote when they put their votes in the ballot box.”
But let’s not go there. Let’s talk about the latest PFA Player of the Year shortlist, which is sure to spark a lot of discussion – not least among…Manchester City supporters.
The shortlist is as follows: Kevin De Bruyne (City), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur), Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United).
Instant thoughts upon sight?
Where on earth is Son Heung-min?
Where are Bernardo Silva and Rodri?
And if those players don’t make it, are Joao Cancelo, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Declan Rice more worthy candidates than Ronaldo and Kane?
These are personal opinions only and are offered in the safe knowledge that others have the right to shoot them down and call me clueless. (You are welcome.)
After all, Kane has scored 27 goals in all competitions for Spurs this season, and Ronaldo was just three shy of a terrible United team. He scored 18 Premier League goals versus Kane’s 17. There are clearly arguments for both players.
But the overwhelming impression when looking at this shortlist is that the power of a player’s profile and status seems to carry more weight in these considerations than it should. And that professional footballers, when choosing their Player of the Year, are more likely to vote for a football legend like Ronaldo than vote en masse for someone like Rodri or Bernardo, whose week-in-week-out of excellence on a title-winning team might have passed them by , as they focused on their own team’s affairs.
That doesn’t just apply to the award for the men’s player of the year.
A clearer illustration can be found in the PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year shortlist.
Chelsea’s Lauren James made the six-man shortlist after a WSL season in which injury limited her to six substitutes and no starts, playing 113 minutes in total.
And it appears to be coming back to something said in an article last year about how players vote for these awards.
“To be honest, if it weren’t for the stats or what you’re reading on social media, I don’t think I or many others would have any idea how anyone was doing in the Championship that season, other than if they were against play him,” said one player.
The same championship player added last year that he had “no idea” about defenders when picking team of the season for his division. He suggested Will Hughes, then of Watford, in midfield “but again, that’s just because I think he’s a good player”. Above all, he said, “they will be names that are only remembered from previous years”.
And perhaps this candid declaration, which reflects an unconscious bias in favor of established, big-name players – and apparent indifference to those in less glamorous roles – offers some sort of explanation for why the likes of Rodri, Bernardo and Cancelo didn’t make it.
Salah beat De Bruyne to be named Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association (FWA) last month, but Rice of West Ham finished third. 31 different players received votes, including nine from Liverpool and six from Manchester City. Like the PFA, the FWA asks its respondents to vote for only one player.
When the athlete held its own awards poll last week, it was a different voting system, with each journalist and editor naming their top six in turn. It was won by De Bruyne ahead of Salah – and it could be a reasonable bet that the PFA price will go in the same direction when it is announced on June 9.
The interesting thing about our set-up is that Son finished third and Cancelo fourth, with the next four places pretty much even between Mane, Rodri, Bernardo and Alexander-Arnold. That was a clear top eight followed by another group that included Van Dijk, Phil Foden, Thiago, Alisson, Rice and Jarrod Bowen.
That sounds pretty reasonable to me.
In the interest of full disclosure I went to 1) De Bruyne, 2) Salah, 3) Bernardo, 4) Rodri, 5) Van Dijk, 6) Son.
For the sake of even greater disclosure, my team of the season was: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Cancelo; DeBruyne, Rodri, Thiago; Salah, son, Bernardo.
And for maximum openness, in hindsight I wish I had gone with Mane rather than Thiago and thrown Bernardo back into midfield.
Again, we’re talking about personal choices based on our own subjective evaluations, but these preferences seem to reflect not only that City and Liverpool were in a class of their own in the 2021-22 Premier League, but that even position after position, your players were almost unrivalled.
If I did a second XI it would feature Kyle Walker, Andy Robertson and Foden alongside the likes of Jose Sa, Antonio Rudiger, Rice and Bowen.
City and Liverpool really were on a different level, way above everyone else and they didn’t just do that by relying on one or two outstanding players. For that reason, the star-studded Player of the Year shortlist – De Bruyne, Van Dijk, Kane, Mane, Salah, Ronaldo – seems a little… disappointing.
Including a player who scores 17 or 18 Premier League goals can never be seen as controversial, but it’s certainly debatable when standard performers of Rodri, Bernardo and Cancelo are overlooked, let alone Son, the winner of the golden boot.
Maybe it just boils down to what this unnamed championship player said the athlete last year: that many professional footballers are so focused on their own jobs that they don’t spend much time evaluating the performances of players from other teams, and so default to voting for those whose reputations precede them.
Kane is more than a good player; He is close to England’s all-time goalscoring record and will go down in history as one of the greats of the Premier League era. Ronaldo is one of the greatest to ever play this game. But it’s not easy to argue that any of them were among the top six players in the Premier League this last season; In Tottenham’s season-ending awards, it was Son who swept the board.
Although I lament the decisions of others, I keep thinking about my own.
In the end, it felt like a slugfest between Salah, who produced such an intriguing performance in the first half of the season, and De Bruyne, who also featured in the second half. Had you even conducted a mid-campaign poll of City fans, De Bruyne would undoubtedly have been in the top four.
The feeling gnaws that Salah’s best period of the season came not when Liverpool played so relentlessly in recent months, but during this autumn period as they lost the points that would ultimately leave them agonizingly short of City’s 93 points.
De Bruyne’s best period of the season came not when City won 12 straight Premier League games between early November and mid-January, but in recent months as some of his team-mates have struggled and he has consistently been the one who leads them – through personality and sublime ability – dragged through.
It seems a contradiction, but perhaps it says something about how we perceive individual performance in a team sport.
Liverpool were at their best when Salah wasn’t. City were at their best when De Bruyne wasn’t. It was when both teams stuttered – and with those two teams it’s very relative that the star performers really came to the fore.
With De Bruyne, with Salah and Mane, with Ronaldo and Kane, there was no shortage of “clutch” moments – players who found the inspiration to save their team at the moments when the stakes were highest and the pressure was greatest was. Never underestimate the admiration for a player who plays ‘in the clutch’, especially when it comes to someone like Ronaldo who has done so with such incredible frequency throughout his long career.
It could be said that Ronaldo has worn United at times this season. With him they only managed sixth place. Many have asked where on earth they would have ended up without him. It’s certainly easy to see why he and Kane would actually have received votes from their professional peers.
But more than son? More than Rodri? More than Bernardo? More than Cancelo, Alexander-Arnold and Rice? It’s odd – and objections are inevitable – but it’s democracy in action. And if that means voting through a blurry memory of something you once believed in, then so be it.
Within minutes of the PFA’s announcement on Wednesday night, the dismay at Son’s omission was almost outweighed by protests on behalf of Rodri.
But even City’s own Player of the Season award process found no place for the Spaniard on the final three-man shortlist.
And when neither his own club nor his professional peers give him the recognition his achievements deserve, one wonders who will.
(Top Photos: Getty Images)