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the square ball week: leeds united player of the year

the square ball week: leeds united player of the year


•• Warnock x Bamba by Joe Gamble –

Some years, like 2013, it seems like an easy decision. Player of the year? Sam Byram. Young player of the year? Sam Byram. No further discussion required.

The only reason Ross McCormack didn’t win both in 2014 was because he was born in 1986, but otherwise he would have had them both sewn up too.

There are other times when the decision is much more difficult. It’s interesting to look back at the thought processes that made Tony Dorigo Leeds United’s player of the year in 1991/92, when we won the league title with a group of players who didn’t just excel themselves, but in most cases had the season of their lives.

How do you pick Dorigo, who was outstanding, out of a team that included Strachan, who was outstanding? Was it because he came straight into the side as a £1.3million new signing and impressed, because if so, how do you choose him ahead of Rod Wallace? How do you decide whether to reward Dorigo’s sheer class, or Lee Chapman playing on heroically and scoring goals with a barely protected broken wrist?

Then there are seasons like this season. It’s not a question of how you pick between the players in 2014/15 – but how do you pick anybody at all?

It’s been getting better since January, true, but the paradox is that Leeds’ improvement has coincided with the departure of one player who looked a dead cert for the award. Nobody in the first half of the season played better than Stephen Warnock; he was the last, strongest line in a defence that had few lines in front of him and very little strength.

Taking the role not just of captain but of saviour and hero, Warnock was defiant; determined not to concede, determined not to be beaten on the pitch, determined not to concede to or be beaten by what looked from an outside like a campaign by the president to oust him from the side.

To those fans with problems with Massimo Cellino’s running of the club, Warnock was a symbol of opposition and resistance. To those who just wanted to see Leeds United defend the goal properly, he was a symbol of hope and inspiration. To those who were looking for a potential player of the year, he was becoming as automatic a choice as Ross McCormack last season. And since January, he’s been playing for Derby County.

And since then times have good, which raises an interesting question – philosophically, if not practically – about the status of the player of the year award this season. It was going to be given to Warnock. Then he left and the team got better. What does that say about our player of the year elect? Was he actually not really that good? Were his performances every bit as good as we thought, but did they somehow act as a hindrance to the team? Should we even be rewarding individual effort in a team sport? And should we reward individuals when the overall team performance was – for most of the season – so poor?

With its obvious nominee gone, perhaps the club felt the pressure of those questions. The list of possible players of the year in Stephen Warnock’s absence is a short one: Marco Silvestri, and a number of players who by rights should only be eligible for young player of the year but who have taken on extra responsibility and blossomed under Redders.

Leeds United’s workaround, given that so few players deserve the award, was to decide that everybody deserved a shot at the award and got a place on the longlist for the fans to choose from: everybody with more than ten first team appearances, that is. Or, to put it another way, every player except Cani, Dawson, Montenegro and Benedicic. Tough luck, lads, but I guess you should have upped your game.

Up to the levels of, say, Gaetano Berardi, who looked like a violent liability for most of his eighteen appearances but has at least calmed down a little and stopped feasting on raw partridge in the moonlight; Casper Sloth, who in fourteen games has carved out an impressive and distinctive niche of non-achievement; Adryan Tavares, who glittered beguilingly until the dive that was seen around the world sandpapered some of the gloss off; and Steve Morison, a striker who hasn’t scored for Leeds for more than two years. Their inclusions on the voting form are almost the definition of a thank you for trying.

The ten-game cut-off point, although it lets through the likes of Morison, may have been chosen to ensure the inclusion of one of the other genuine options. Sol Bamba joined as Warnock left, and took over his last-gasp role at the back; learning quickly that to predict and react to what Giuseppe Bellusci is about to do can be as important as watching out for what the opposing strikers are going to do. Despite a near-Zaliukas style implosion in the first half against Brighton, in his few games so far Bamba has shown himself to be made of the same shipworthy rope as Warnock; worthy perhaps of a better ship, but for the time being holding ours together. If there was some way of awarding player of the season to Warnock-Bamba as a single entity, it would be worth considering. Perhaps the lack of that option explains why ol’ Sol didn’t get voted onto the shortlist.

There’s something unseemly when a player wins the senior award before he’s won the young version, and as the final shortlist is three young players (Byram again, Mowatt and Cook) plus Luke Murphy and Marco Silvestri, then it feels like Silvestri’s prize to lose. And at this point I want to say: called it.

It’s not that he’s an exceptional goalkeeper; he would join John Lukic, Nigel Martyn and Paul Robinson as goalkeeping player of the year, and while he might rival Robbo as a shot stopper, he’s not yet in the same class as the other two. But he’s been busy; boy, has he been busy. And from the moment Dave Hockaday was appointed as manager, I knew: player of the year this time would be the goalkeeper. And if it wasn’t, we’d probably be relegated.

Put in those terms, Marco’s a worthy winner.

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