Football: The ambling alp and other immense talents: Tomorrow is prize-giving day for the Professional Footballers' Association. Joe Lovejoy hands out the Oscars

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The Independent Online
AFTER eight operations the old knees give him a bit of gyp on the stairs, but Paul McGrath will gladly grin and bear it one more time tomorrow when, if justice is done, the original 'ooh-aah' will mount the dais to receive the acclaim of his peers as their player of the season.

If the grapevine is accurate, as it usually is in such matters, Aston Villa's dreadnought centre-half has won the poll of players' union members by a margin to put the French right in the shade. Officially, he is the short- price favourite in a field of six, completed by Ryan Giggs, Paul Ince, Dean Saunders, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright. Unofficially, the book closed weeks ago.

Ireland's ambling alp will be a deserved winner, this formal recognition of his enduring excellence long overdue. For years he has been the best defender in the country, his Hibernian ancestry a source of constant regret for successive England managers. Even now, at 33 and with decrepit joints which prevent him from training, he would saunter into any team you care to name.

Manchester United, worried by those dodgy knees, and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, sold him for peanuts - pounds 400,000 - in 1989 and paid an inflationary pounds 2.3m for his replacement, Gary Pallister. Alex Ferguson professes no regrets, but searching questions will be asked if McGrath's defensive supremacy helps Villa to win the championship at United's expense. Pallister has done well - he was the players' player of 1991-92 - but only those who view the world through spectacles of the reddest hue would dispute that McGrath is better.

Bryan Robson, who knows both as well as most, has described the United McGrath as 'the best player I have played with'. He said: 'Paul had unbelievable pace, was equally at ease playing a pass with his left or right foot, read the game well, was cool under pressure and powerful in the air. He had everything.'

Jack Charlton, another fan, would second that, with one important amendment. He prefers the present tense. For the Republic of Ireland, Charlton used McGrath in midfield with considerable success before restoring him to centre-half where, he says, 'I don't think there is anyone as good, anywhere in the world'. A worthy nominee at London's Grosvenor House tomorrow, the man with the biggest boots in football, and a talent to match, will also be the favourite when the writers come to select their own Footballer of the Year.

Apart from the principal award, the players also vote, position by position, for the best 11 specialists in each of the four divisions - an excercise which gives us all an excuse to play manager.

The criteria are unreal in the sense that selection is made on the basis of individual expertise rather than collective efficiency. The requirement is to pick the best player in each position, not the best team. Salt of the earth catalysts need not apply.

Self-indulgence, masquerading behind an intent to stimulate debate, offers a buccaneering 4-2-4 guaranteed to raise a smile, an eyebrow, and possibly a titter at Lancaster Gate.

Peter Schmeichel is, by common consent, the pick among Premier League goalkeepers, his pre-eminence reflecting how times have changed in a position where British used to be best, but overseas imports - Bosnich, Segers, Thorstvedt, Stejskal, Miklosko, Srnicek - now proliferate.

Denmark's No 1 is second to none when it comes to shot-stopping, still the job's prime requirement, and his fast and accurate distribution launches many of United's most incisive attacks. Others have coped better with the new backpass law, notably Bryan Gunn, who seems to get better every year, and now runs Schmeichel a close second.

Judging by the terrace taunts, Graham Taylor is in a miniscule minority in deeming Lee Dixon his best right- back. Paul Parker, a more reliable defender, and Earl Barrett, who contributes more with the ball at his feet, are blessed with additional, persuasive qualities, and the personal choice is Parker, who is quick and dependable, with good positional awareness.

With Stuart Pearce hors de combat, and possibly on the wane, left-back boils down to a straight fight between Tony Dorigo and Steve Staunton. A difficult one, this, with Dorigo playing well in a struggling team, but the rampaging Staunton shades it for the sheer effervescence of his game.

McGrath picks himself at centre- half, and there is a good case for pairing him with his underrated club partner, Shaun Teale. Other candidates who spring readily to mind are Pallister, Tony Adams and the canny Gary Mabbutt, but the most improved central defender this motorway nomad has come across in nearly 90 games this season is the rugged 'Razor' Ruddock at Tottenham.

Moving on, we come to one of the great conundrums: when is a midfield player not a midfield player? Should Ray Houghton - a strong contender - be considered as a midfielder or as an ersatz winger? Can Peter Beardsley, who does most of his best work in the deep, be termed a midfield man? Better to avoid the hybrids and go for out-and-out specialists, with two in the middle servicing a front four.

In the absence of the real thing, Ince has been a junior Robson for Manchester United and England, and his presence on the players' shortlist speaks for itself. If we were looking for proper balance and not individual eminence a place might be found for Villa's unsung grafter, Kevin Richardson. Instead, the terms of reference demand Roy Keane.

The forwards, as everybody's favourites, excite the hottest debate, but we can safely assume unanimity on one point. Blind men and Manchester City fanatics apart, no one could even contemplate leaving out the most exhilarating young talent to emerge in recent times, and Ryan Giggs will have been the first name on most lists.

On the other flank, the right, the choice of Chris Waddle will be more contentious, but anyone who has seen Sheffield Wednesday with any regularity will tell you that he of the stooping shuffle lies at the root of their success this season.

At 32, Waddle is playing as well as ever - much more productively than John Barnes - and why Barnes should be allowed so many last chances with England while someone in better form is consistently overlooked remains, like Nigel Clough's continued presence in the squad, one of the game's mysteries.

Eric Cantona, the Great Entertainer, is an almost irresistible temptation when it comes to picking the two strikers, but is he really making more compelling music than 'Satchmo' Wright, who is again outscoring everyone? I think not.

So why not Wright and Cantona? A beguiling thought, but the conditions state that voting forms had to be returned by the middle of February, when Alan Shearer's pre-Christmas exploits were still fresh in the mind. Until injury laid him low, Shearer was looking the complete centre-forward. More than a goalscorer, he is also a precociously accomplished leader of the line, and it is this duality which tips the scales Blackburn way.

The Professional Footballers' Association nominate neither substitutes nor a manager, but where is the fun in having a column if you can not cheat a little? On The Independent bench we want Gunn, Barrett and Cantona. The manager? With so many big names around, who else but Big Ron?

THE LOVEJOY XI: Schmeichel (Manchester United); Parker (Manchester United), McGrath (Aston Villa), Ruddock (Tottenham), Staunton (Aston Villa), Ince (Manchester United), Keane (Nottingham Forest), Waddle (Sheffield Wednesday), Wright (Arsenal), Shearer (Blackburn Rovers), Giggs (Manchester United). Substitutes: Gunn (Norwich City), Barrett (Aston Villa), Cantona (Manchester United).

(Photograph omitted)