Football: French flair should outweigh excesses: Who will win the the football writers' Footballer of the Year award? Joe Lovejoy assesses the candidates

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE players made their choice last weekend, now it is the turn of football writers to vote for their Footballer of the Year, whose election is as much a part of Cup final week as those endless 'meet the teams' features and monochrome flashbacks to the day Stanley Matthews took Bolton Wanderers for walkies.

The TV generation may like to think otherwise, but the writers' award is the more prestigious of the two, predating the PFA version by some 26 years. Old Stan was our first winner, Norman Hunter was theirs. Quite.

If history is any guide, we can expect further dichotomy, with those who play 50 games and those who watch 100-plus divided as to the most deserving case. If, on the other hand, ability was the sole criterion, the two electorates would be of like mind for only the sixth time in 21 years.

Eric Cantona has been, by a distance, the most consistently exciting act in the country - the one player hard-bitten hacks as well as wide-eyed punters would pay to watch.

There are other crowd pleasers, of course. Ryan Giggs, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer and Matthew Le Tissier spring readily to mind. But in terms of God-given gifts and the edge-of-the-seat factor, Cantona produces more easily, and more regularly, than the rest.

Such doubts as there are about him - and they are being voiced in increasing numbers - are to do with temperament rather than talent. The 20 goals which make him Manchester United's leading scorer this season, the ball-teasing sorcery and the catalytic effect he has had on the team around him would have won him the vote by the sort of margin that needs no counting but for the behavioural problems which brought him the five-match suspension he completes today.

He has been sent off twice, and while physical excesses were no bar in the past, notably when Kenny Burns was honoured in 1978, there is foul play and foul play.

Cantona raised neutral hackles everywhere with a couple of sly kicks at opponents laying helpless on the ground, which is not the sort of conduct anyone, least of all the myopic Alex Ferguson, should be condoning.

Without getting too po-faced about it, the top players are under an obligation to set a better example to the kids who idolise them, and ape their every move.

For those who deem the enfant too terrible, there is no shortage of decent alternatives. The same coruscating United team offers Giggs, who would have had a better chance had the award been made at Christmas, and the more prosaic but no less worthy virtues of Paul Ince and the endearingly enduring Steve Bruce.

Giggs has come down to earth of late after a heavenly start, but Ince and Bruce have been reliability personified. If the award was made on grounds of ability alone, neither would come into it, but it isn't. Were Gordon Strachan (1991), Steve Perryman (1982) and Terry McDermott (1980) really the best players in the country? No. Other factors, consistency of performance, deportment - things which might conveniently be lumped together under the loose heading professionalism - were taken into account then, and will be now.

Enter Tony Adams and David Platt, both of whom merit attention for the exemplary way in which they have maximised modest natural gifts. From unpromising beginnings, when he made an ass of himself, Adams has developed into the most coveted defender in Britain - an inspirational captain who has led by sleeves-rolled example throughout Arsenal's gallop to the final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

Platt is another self-made man whose whole somehow adds up to more than his constituent parts. Changing at Crewe is not the easiest route to Italy, but application and dedication have brough him fame, fortune and respect in the strongest league of all. If we are looking for examples for the players of tomorrow to follow, there is none better.

Still down among the cloth-cap candidates, mention should be made of David Batty, who has come on in leaps and bounds since his move to Blackburn Rovers.

Freed of the defensive yoke he laboured under at Leeds, he has become pretty much the complete midfielder - second to none in the tackle, power to outlast Duracell and devastating with his new forte, the reverse pass. Batty will not figure prominently in the voting, nor should he do so, but he does deserve acknowledgement in dispatches.

The Great Entertainers will fare better. There is a case for Shearer, whose 33 goals are the bedrock of Blackburn's bristling season. Ditto Andy Cole, whose 38 for Newcastle have electrified St James' Park.

No criticism is implied, but these two are uncomplicated, one-touch finishers. Those with a penchant for subtlety and clever combined play will be more likely to go for Beardsley - such a positive influence on his belated return to the England team - or possibly even Le Tissier, who is at last doing justice to that vast potential.

In reality, though, we are talking second best, if only with a lower case b. For all his petulant peccadillos, Ferguson's flawed genius is l'homme. He has given us many more good moments than bad and, in the hope that he has learned his lesson after that lengthy ban, this vote has been cast for Eric the Red.

PAST FOOTBALLERS OF THE YEAR (players' choice first): 1974 Norman Hunter (Leeds Utd), Ian Callaghan (Liverpool); 1975 Colin Todd (Derby County), Alan Mullery (Fulham); 1976 Pat Jennings (Tottenham), Kevin Keegan (Liverpool); 1977 Andy Gray (Aston Villa), Emlyn Hughes (Liverpool); 1978 Peter Shilton (Nottingham Forest), Kenny Burns (Nottingham Forest); 1979 Liam Brady (Arsenal), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpol); 1980 Terry McDermott (Liverpool), Terry McDermott; 1981 John Wark (Ipswich Town), Frans Thijssen (Ipswich Town); 1982 Kevin Keegan (Southampton), Steve Perryman (Tottenham); 1983 Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool), Kenny Dalglish; 1984 Ian Rush (Liverpool), Ian Rush; 1985 Peter Reid (Everton), Neville Southall (Everton); 1986 Gary Lineker (Everton), Gary Lineker; 1987 Clive Allen (Tottenham), Clive Allen; 1988 John Barnes (Liverpool), John Barnes; 1989 Mark Hughes (Manchester United), Steve Nicol (Liverpool); 1990 David Platt (Aston Villa), John Barnes (Liverpool); 1991 Mark Hughes (Manchester United), Gordon Strachan (Leeds Utd); 1992 Gary Pallister (Manchester United), Gary Lineker (Tottenham); 1993 Paul McGrath (Aston Villa), Chris Waddle (Sheffield Wednesday); 1994 Eric Cantona (Manchester United), vote announced 12 May.