Rafa BenÃtez makes good copy for sports writers these days even when he doesn’t say much. His latest soundbyte arrived today when asked who his vote for PFA Player of the Season would be. Unsurprisingly, he went for his skipper, Steven Gerrard.
Agree or not with the Spaniard’s choice, it is certain that Gerrard will be in the chosen six nominees for the award, which is also certain to feature at least two Manchester United players, and probably another Liverpool one as well, with Chelsea also likely to feature.
The domination of the Big Four clubs at the PFA awards is no new thing — of the last eleven winners only former Tottenham winger David Ginola has managed it from outside of the fabled foursome — but it did get me thinking. How about some recognition for those who probably won’t get any? How about some appreciation for those who do a sterling job each week and get little more than a passing mention from Hansen, Shearer, Gray et al? Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to my own personal selections for a reassuringly “Big Four Free” team of the season.
Goalkeeper: Jussi JÃ¤Ã¤skelÃ¤inen (Bolton)
It is unusual for me to be blinded by one individual performance when making a selection. Especially with goalkeepers, of whom I am frighteningly critical. But Bolton’s Jussi JÃ¤Ã¤skelÃ¤inen deserves a spot in this team above any other keeper purely thanks to his display in the Trotters’ win over Hull City in November. Bolton won 1-0, thanks to Matty Taylor’s 50th minute strike, but JÃ¤Ã¤skelÃ¤inen was the main reason for their success. The Finn’s performance was perhaps the finest I have seen from a goalkeeper in the Premier League — which is no exaggeration. Staggering saves from Geovanni (three times) and Marlon King that just had to be seen to be believed. Match of the Day even afforded him individual praise. And you can’t say fairer than that.
Of course one swallow does not make a summer, and JÃ¤Ã¤skelÃ¤inen can make errors like any other keeper, but in terms of consistency, shot stopping ability and minimal-fuss goalkeeping, there are few better. Tim Howard at Everton, Robert Green at West Ham and Brad Friedel at Villa have all had solid seasons, but none have had an afternoon as inspired as Jussi had at the KC.
Right Back: Vedran Corluka (Spurs)
Tottenham’s spending spree raised more than a few eyebrows in the football world last summer. The attacking additions of David Bentley, Giovani Dos Santos, Luka Modric and Roman Pavlyuchenko, it was said, would make Spurs one of the most attractive sides in the league (football wise of course). But one that went almost un-noticed was the late-August capture of Vedran Corluka, the Croatian defender, from Manchester City.
Although the fee (around £8m) was far from modest, Corluka was hardly a marquee signing. And some hard-to-please City fans had expressed doubts over the tall, Bosnian-born full back’s pace. But since arriving at White Hart Lane he has proven Juande Ramos’ shrewdest signing (Modric aside). As competent at centre half as he is at right back (and able to fill in at left back or in central midfield), Corluka has plugged the gaps vacated regularly by Alan Hutton and Ledley King with ease. A man of the match display against Manchester United in November was a high point, but his performances have rarely dipped below the “Good” mark. Money well spent by Spurs? Surely not!
Left Back: Leighton Baines (Everton)
For the second season running, an Everton full back has found his performances catapulting him into international reckoning with England. But whilst Joleon Lescott was never a feasible option for England’s left back position, Leighton Baines has a far stronger claim to be vying with Ashley Cole.
What he lacks in stature, he more than makes up for in just about everything else. Assured in possession, accurate with both his passing and crossing (six assists and counting this season), and intelligent with his positional play and jockeying of wingers, Baines has emerged from the shadows in which he spent the bulk of last season to play his way into Fabio Capello’s latest England squad. Cole may be the standard-bearer in that position, but the 24 year-old Scouser is not far behind at all.
Centre Back: Phil Jagielka (Everton)
Alongside Baines is another player who has served his time in the Football League, and who is now establishing himself not only as a Premiership player, but a damn good one as well.
Phil Jagielka felt the pain of relegation with Sheffield United more than most. It was his barmy handball on the last day of the season which gave David Unsworth the penalty from which Wigan survived at the Blades’ expense. But how glad Everton fans must be that they did. Since his £4m switch to Goodison Park, Jagielka has shaken off his “utility man” tag to cement a place at the heart of Everton’s defence, where he regularly excels in a manner akin to a John Terry or a Jamie Carragher.
Impeccable timing is Jagielka’s forte, both in the tackle and in the air. His reading of the game has come on leaps and bounds under David Moyes’ tutelage and he has emerged as a Toffees captain in the making surely. A sticky debut against David Villa and Spain for England should not detract from what has been a truly remarkable season from the defender. Not bad considering Neil Warnock once claimed he was capable of “competing with Steven Gerrard for England”
Centre Back: Titus Bramble (Wigan)
I can hear you all now. Laughing. It’s always laughter where Titus Bramble is concerned, isn’t it? OK, so the former Ipswich and Newcastle player has done more for football comedy than Danny Baker and Nick Hancock ever managed, and at one point it was fair to say that an opposing manager’s team talk could justifiably have featured the words “target the big lad at the back”, but that was then.
Nowadays, under the very under-rated guidance of Steve Bruce, Bramble is a far more assured performer. OK, he is still capable of some shoddy clearances, and he will never be the top class defender that his physical attributes had once convinced George Burley and Sir Bobby Robson that he could be, but credit where is due please. Wigan have enjoyed a fine season, and Bramble has played a big part. Now stop laughing, please.
Right Midfield: Clint Dempsey (Fulham)
Americans and football, eh? When will they ever learn. OK, so John Harkes was decent, Brian McBride was decent, even Joe-Max Moore had his moments (well…moment). But you wouldn’t sign one, would you?
Fulham have a pretty rich history when it comes to American players. McBride was a hero in his time at the Cottage, Kasey Keller was in goal as they staved off relegation last season, whilst Eddie’s Lewis and Johnson have plied their trade in West London with varying success. But in Clint Dempsey, the Cottagers have a player who — whisper this — may just be the best of the bunch.
Skillful in possession, a workaholic with an eye for a goal and an assist (5 goals, 2 assists at time of writing), Dempsey has been a major factor in Fulham’s solid season under Roy Hodgson. No fear of reputations either, the part-time rapper notched twice against Chelsea, and has assumed greater responsibility within the side (along with Danny Murphy and Simon Davies) since the January departure of Jimmy Bullard to Hull.
Left Midfield: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)
So I guess Ashley Young has had plenty of praise over the past eighteen months. Fair do’s. But that shouldn’t cloud one’s judgment of what, let’s face it, have been some pretty stunning performances this season.
Villa have been punching above their weight this season, let’s get that straight. For all their qualities, they still only possess one right back in the squad. And he plays at left back for them. But in Young, they have that rare gem, a wide player with skill and pace who can put in a telling ball. Off either foot as well, Young was a bit one dimensional when he first arrived on Villa’s left flank, shaping to cross before cutting inside. It worked, but he has added to that. He has worked on his left foot and is as capable now of steaming down the line as he is of working a bit of space infield on his right foot, and his set pieces remain a potent threat — whether direct efforts at goal or whipped crosses for the likes of John Carew and Martin Laursen.
Maybe he needs to add more goals (5 from 28 in the league this season), but assist-wise he is almost peerless as a wide player, and at 23 he is only going to improve as well.
Centre Midfield: Wilson Palacios (Tottenham)
When your midfield holding player is Didier Zokora, you could be forgiven for splurging £14m on a replacement in the January transfer window. Hondurans have not exactly got a rich Premier League history behind them, but Wilson Palacios’ form at Wigan, and now Spurs, is set to change that.
It is no surprise that Palacios’ move to White Hart Lane came just weeks after he had orchestrated the Latics’ 1-0 win over Spurs with the kind of midfield display that resembled Michael Essien or even Patrick Vieira. Confidence in possession, bite and intelligence in the tackle, and range in the passing, Palacios formed a solid midfield trio with Lee Cattermole and Michael Brown at the JJB, and has since dovetailed neatly with Luka Modric and Jermaine Jenas at White Hart Lane, adding steel and craft to a Spurs midfield that has often lacked both since the departure of Michael Carrick in 2006. Steve Bruce and Arsene Wenger are big fans Harry Redknapp has already added his name to that list.
Centre Midfield: Stephen Ireland (Manchester City)
I remember seeing Stephen Ireland play a few seasons ago, and being suitably impressed by the deftness and ingenuity of his passing. I then remember reading crazy stories about his private life, and seeing pictures of his Pimped-Out Range Rover, and thinking “maybe it’s gone to his head”. This season, he has proved me wrong.
It couldn’t have been easy for someone like Ireland. A City youth product trying to establish himself at a club with a blank chequebook is going to find life tough, but Ireland’s performances in a more attacking midfield role this season have been one of the few constants at Eastlands. Seven goals and as many assists tell only half the tale; Ireland’s clever use of the ball, tireless running and constantly threatening forays into the box have carried City through a number of games (notably away to Hull). Mark Hughes is a huge admirer, and no doubt a few other managers will be looking towards Ireland should City aim their sights higher in the transfer market this summer. Kaka may not have signed, but City, and Ireland, may not live to regret that.
Forward: Kevin Davies (Bolton)
Kevin Davies always had some making up to do to me. After a fine debut season with Southampton in 1997/98, I had gleefully announced that Davies would go on to be one of the Premier League’s top marksmen. He had it all — pace, strength, finishing ability. But a £7m switch to Blackburn yielded little luck and even fewer goals, and his reinvention at Bolton made him into something of a warhorse, when once he promised much more.
In truth Davies has not changed too much about his game this season. He still gives defenders a torrid time aerially, he still walks with his chest puffed out further than Eric Cantona, and he is still more workmanlike than masterful. But with Kevin Nolan gone (and even before that), Davies has assumed the role of captain at the Reebok Stadium, and assumed it with relish. Eleven league goals is no mean feat for a Bolton centre forward (it got Michael Ricketts an England cap remember), and Davies contributes to most of the good things in Bolton’s game with his strength, desire and willingness to do the ugly things. He may never play for England, but Bolton fans know the value of Davies, and so do his managers.
Forward: Peter Crouch (Portsmouth)
Think back about five years. 2004 say. Imagine someone had walked up to you and said “Peter Crouch will not only play for Liverpool, win an FA Cup winners medal, cost over £25m in combined transfer fees, but also pick up plenty of England caps and play in a World Cup, as well as dating a rather tasty Scouse piece“. Once you had stopped laughing, what would you have said?
It says a lot for Crouch’s development that many Liverpool fans were disappointed to see him leave for Portsmouth in the summer, but Pompey fans were delighted to have the big man back on board, to form a classic little and large partnership with Jermain Defoe. In a season of turmoil on the south coast, Crouch has not disappointed. His 15 goals in all competitions have been priceless to Pompey, and he has become very much the main man since the departure of Defoe to Spurs in the January window. He is still derided of course, but in truth few forwards can rival his touch around the box, and his physical presence means he will always get chances. And unlike on Merseyside, he has a club and a manager who will give him those chances.
So there you have it. You might not agree. In fact I know you won’t. But still it is hard to deny that these lads deserve a bit of praise as we approach the end of a long hard season. And if you don’t think so, then you are obviously a Big Four lover. Tut tut.