Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday May 22 2009
The folly of voting for a Footballer of the Year some three months before the season`s end has been exposed in full by the ridiculous, if sentimental, decision to give the award to Ryan Giggs, having made eleven starts and scored 1 goal this season. A Lifetime Achievement Award would not at all have been derided or undeserved for Giggs, but one feels the award has been forever tainted by this disproportionate decision. A bit like when Michael Owen was voted European Footballer of the Year in 2002. Similarly, the Premier League Manager of the Year Award should not be taken too seriously either, voted as it is by sponsors. There is only one occasion since the inception of the Premier League in 1992 that the award has not gone to the manager who has won the league. (George Burley of Ipswich in 2001). The League Manager`s Association Manager of the Year award appears to have more credibility, voted for as it is by the league`s 92 managers, the award can be won by a manager from any league. However, this award has only ever been won by Premiership managers.
The purpose of that convoluted introduction is to state that in the absence of any meaningful award for managers, I may as well stick my oar in and consider who the Premiership Manager of the Year is. (I`m not going to patronise anybody and pretend I watch quite enough lower league football to chance upon a consummate manager of the year. Though a good number of my friends would ask me to pipe up for Millwall`s Kenny Jackett, whilst a second consecutive promotion for Darren Ferguson at Peterborough would appear to contend Darren as a chip off the old block). The candidates are many and varied. You have to start with Alex Ferguson, even if you do so grudgingly. Back in 2006, when Chelsea dished out a 3-0 shoeing to United at the Bridge to confirm a second consecutive league title, the torch looked to have been passed to the oil fields of West London. Three years later and United have sewn up a third consecutive league title and teeter on the brink of retaining the Champions League, a feat that has never been achieved in its current format. Ferguson has blended the ageing Scholes, Neville and Giggs in with a squad of talent and promise. Wayne Rooney has been shifted over to the left wing with such great effect that nobody seems to have noticed his positional change. Carrick, Fletcher and Park have seamlessly replaced the industry and skill of Keane, Scholes and Giggs in their prime. Every new challenge that the league has served Ferguson, he has returned with a firm forehand. In Rafael, Fabio, Macheda and Anderson, there is a new generation bubbling below the surface too. Ferguson`s great success has been to successfully keep a squad of 20+ players happy. Could you even name a definite United starting XI were their whole squad fit? However, Ferguson is also a very well resourced manager (I should point out through resources he earned off the back of his own success and the Youth side of the early 90s) working with one of the biggest brand names in world football. So I can`t rightly give him Manager of the Year.
Back in March, I suggested Steve Bruce of Wigan Athletic to be a worthy candidate and whilst his team`s passable impression of Curbishley era Charlton since March has seen him slide down the rankings somewhat, his achievement in keeping Wigan gently treading water despite having the most salubrious elements of his squad asset stripped is still commendable nonetheless. It`s certainly not popular to afford the man any credit (particularly around Lancashire way), but Gary Megson has likewise steered the words "relegation" gently away from the lips of the Reebok punters with a squad that would not look out of place in the Championship. To elucidate, when Bolton came to the Emirates in January, they fielded only three substitutes. It sticks in the craw to give old droopy features any credit, but, as Harry Redknapp is so nauseatingly keen to inform us ad infinitum, Spurs had two points from eight games when he took over and now going into the last game of the season his side stand a decent chance of qualifying for the Europe League next season. (So if they qualify, Redknapp can spend the next six months whingeing about how inconvenient the competition is and how it is distracting for Tottenham in their ultimate aim to finish ninth). He has restored confidence to one of the most widely derided goalkeepers in Premiership history (the Spurs fans quite openly slaughtered him you may remember. Just as a reminder to those of you that believe Arsenal fans are the only ones that indulge this kind of practice) and has even made a decent fist of humiliating David Bentley, which is perfectly fine by me. However, the sheer amount of money Harry had at his disposal and the investment on the squad he inherited means he doesn`t get my vote.
It seems not a year goes past when David Moyes` achievements at 'plucky` Everton are not eulogised over and rightly so. The likes of Aston Villa, Manchester City, Spurs and Newcastle invest heavily and promise a serious challenge to the top four cartel every year, but every year relative paupers Everton are the ones that lead the "best of the rest" rat pack. This achievement is all the more laudable this year as Yakubu has been injured since November, whilst James Vaughan, Victor Anichebe and Luis Saha have been fit for a total of 12 games between them since Yakubu`s injury. This means Moyes has played almost half of the whole domestic campaign without a single recognised centre forward. Throw in a challenging run to the F.A. Cup Final which has seen them dispatch Aston Villa, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Manchester United and you have further evidence as to Moyes` swelling stock as a top flight manager. However, he does not get my vote this year. Another strong candidate worthy of mention visits our hallowed ground on Sunday. Whatever the result, Stoke City are guaranteed to finish in 12th place at least. Whilst the pretentious purists deride their style of football, Pulis has focussed on the strengths of his squad and pitted them against the weaknesses of others. He has recognised that a side`s home form is key to keeping them in the division and has made the Britannia Stadium one of the unfriendliest places to visit in the top flight. Backed by a rambunctious crowd with a squad packed full of muscle and athleticism, Stoke have turned their home ground into a fortress- as Arsenal will attest. Stoke may not play pretty, balletic triangles, but they play positive, attacking football and show no hint of respect to any opponent. The second most vital aspect to a newly promoted side`s chances of survival after home form is usually the business they do in the January transfer window. In Etherington and Beattie, Pulis did arguably the best business in the league as the pair helped steer the Potters from relegation candidates into mid table water treaders. Dave Kitson may well have been a horrible summer signing, but Pulis showed no sentiment or obstinacy and cut his losses quickly. Rory Delap`s long throws might not yield the same acclaim as Ronaldo`s free kicks, but they are equally as deadly and it is therefore just as commidifiable and laudable a skill. But Pulis` real challenge will come next season as Stoke`s tactics are unlikely to be a surprise to anyone. The signing of the skilful feather-lite Etherington points to a manager trying to add another string to the bow.
My personal choice would be Tony Pulis in third place, whilst David Moyes teeters respectfully on the second place podium. Gianfranco Zola would look on from the "respectful mentions" column. However, the man that beats them both just has to be Fulham`s Roy Hodgson. In December 2007 he inherited a Fulham side that had already accepted relegation as an inevitability. The likes of Murphy, Kamara and Dempsey seemed visibly to be thinking of their next move and consequently going through the motions. Hodgson used the January window in 2008 to use his vast network of European contacts, forged off the back his industry on the continent, to bring in unknowns such as Hangeland and Nevland. He gave belief to an ailing side and incredibly kept them in the Premiership on the back of a monumental end of season run.
Hodgson could easily have rested on his laurels there. His reputation across Europe is secure and he was already assured a plateau in Fulham folklore. However, he has regrouped a straggling squad of journeymen and no hopers and added to them intelligently. Who would have thought that the likes of John Pantsill and Mark Schwarzer would prove to be two of the signings of the season? Is it any coincidence that sans Schwarzer, Middlesbrough have gone from mid table obscurity to relegation in twelve months? Hodgson, like all good coaches, started to forge his foundations from the back, with Hangeland, Pantsill, Hughes, Konchesky and Schwarzer forming one of the Premiership`s most formidable units. Not one of those players is a household name, yet Fulham have conceded less goals than Arsenal this season as we go into the last day. Stability has been the by word for Hodgson`s success as that back five have started 37 of Fulham`s 42 games this season. (What price that kind of stability at Arsenal?) Yet he has also added to the squad further up the pitch. Danny Murphy again looks like an international class midfielder and though the singings of Zamora and Johnson have probably not worked out as planned, Hodgson has shown his acute man management skills in transforming waifs and strays such as Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies. He also recognised that Jimmy Bullard, despite his impenetrable media friendly nice guy shtick, was just as avaricious as most modern day footballers when he prioritised money over his career with his move to Hull. Whilst pundits and Cottagers fans alike rued Hodgson`s inflexibility in bending to Bullard`s demands, Bullard was sold to Hull, dodgy knee and all, for £5m. He played 36 minutes before getting injured again. He will likely start next season as an expensive hanger on on a Championship wage bill that will desperately need trimming. Fulham have flourished in his absence with Dickson Etuhu (Etu-who?) taking his place. A Fulham win on the final day will see them qualify for the Europa League next season. Whilst the current squad will require replenishing to meet that challenge and Hodgson will have to spend the summer fending off the vultures for the likes of Hangeland and Murphy, European football could strengthen his hand significantly when he tries to convince them not to follow the path of Jimmy Bullard. Hodgson is unlikely to enjoy such a settled line up next year, particularly if the rigours of Europe are thrown into their schedule, but for now I raise my glass to one of football`s elder statesman and true gentlemen. Mr. Roy Hodgson.LD.
Date:Friday May 22 2009
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